University of California researchers identified the genes responsible for the intense bitter taste of wild cucumbers. That bitter flavor in wild cucurbits- the family that includes cucumber, pumpkin, melon, watermelon and squash- is due to compounds called cucurbitacins.
The fruit and leaves of wild cucurbits have been used in Indian and Chinese medicine for thousands of years, as emetics and purgatives and to treat liver disease. More recently, researchers have shown that cucurbitacins could kill or suppress growth of cancer cells.
Co-author of the paper, William Lucas, said that the new research showed how domestication tweaked cucumber genetics to make the fruit more edible. Understanding that process might open up approaches to developing other food crops based on plants that are naturally either inedible or poor in nutrition, and could also make it much easier to produce cucurbitacins in large enough quantities to use in clinical trials and potentially in medicine.
The findings will be published in the journal Science.