The sequencing of the genetic code of the most important apple tree in the history of science will bring together two of the most important scientific discoveries of all time, claim the scientists involved. More than just a publicity stunt, those involved hope it will help reveal the evolution of the apple genome over three and a half centuries.
The story of how Isaac Newton saw an apple fall to the ground, inspiring the invention of the theory of gravity, is one of science’s most famous tales. Although the commonly added part where the apple hits Newton on the head has no recorded basis, the rest of the story appears to have been true, occurring in the garden of Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, where Newton lived while the plague threatened Cambridge.
Astonishingly enough, the tree in question is still standing 350 years later, and earlier this year a graft was donated to the University of Lincoln to plant on the campus. Nicely timed for Newton’s birthday, the university’s Professor Matthew Goddard has taken advantage of this fact by recording its DNA for posterity.
“Sequencing the genome of Newton’s apple connects two of the most influential thinkers in the history of science: Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin,” Goddard said in a statement. “It creates an intersection between these two fundamental theories of gravity and evolution.”
Most apple trees have much shorter lives, although a century is not uncommon, so several generations have come and gone since Newton’s tree sprouted. Over that time, their DNA has been subjected to change from both artificial selection – where humans choose the tastiest, most fruitful, or hardiest apples to propagate – and natural selection. Consequently, the comparison of such an old tree with modern varieties will give us insight into the changes the species has undergone in that time.
Newton’s tree was from the Flower of Kent variety, used mainly for cooking. Although no longer widely grown commercially, some of the same variety are still for sale, with many of them descending directly from the one inspirational tree. Comparing the genome of Newton’s tree with its descendents will provide insight into the way apple genetics have changed.
It is now so common to sequence human genomes that many people get their own done out of curiosity, but the sequencing of individual plants is less advanced. The project relied on advanced sequencers at the Earlham Institute, a genome analysis center.
Contrary to artistic representations, the Bible does not specify the fruit from the tree of knowledge having been apples. With most of modern physics resting on the work Newton did at Woolsthorpe Manor, however, this particular specimen can claim to be the true tree of knowledge.