How Modern Apples Hitchhiked the Silk Road to Get to the Grocery Store
Scientists have traced the exact origin of the ubiquitous fruit.
Apples may just be the most abundant fruit in any grocery store. But the cultivation of those Pink Ladies and Honeycrisps of produce section has a longer history than you might imagine. A group of researchers have recently traced apples' genealogy as the fruits hitchhiked along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that connected the Eurasian continent from the Korean peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea. Travelers carried all kinds of goods along the sea and land passages—including silk, from which the route got its name.
One thing the traders didn't mean to carry with them, however, were apples seeds, discarded after snacking on central Asian wild apples or crabapples. But without those accidental seed hitchhikers, researchers say, we wouldn't have the modern-day apple—or the 7,500-some varieties of that modern-day apple—that exist today.
Researchers from several universities came together for the new study to sequence and compare the genomes of 117 diverse apple accessions, including the modern apple, M. domestica. Previous studies already proved M. domestica came from the central Asian wild apple and crabapples—but with their new data, the researchers were able to determine exactly where the modern apple originated. "We narrowed down the origin of domesticated apples from very broad central Asia to the Kazakhstan area west of Tian Shan Mountain," study lead author Zhangjun Fei explained.
But more than pinpoint its exact origin, the researchers were able to see the route the apple took to get where it is today, even traveling east into China. "We pointed out two major evolutionary routes, west and east, along the Silk Road, revealing fruit quality changes in every step along the way," Fei summarized in a statement.
As the apple traveled west on the Silk Road, it crossed with the sour European crabapple, Malus sylvestris. In fact, "the modern apple is actually more similar to the sour crabapple than to its Kazakhstani ancestor, M. sieversii," the researchers say, adding that "the hybridization between ancient cultivated apples and M. sylvestris, followed by extensive human selection, gave us new apples that are larger and fuller in flavor, and with a crispy firmness that gives them a longer shelf life."
So the next time your bake up a deliciously sweet and tart apple pie, remember that you have some ancient litterbugs to thank for your fruit.