Singaporean researchers have sequenced the durian genome for the first time ever and identified key genes involved in the fruit’s pungent smell.
One afternoon when I was a student in Melbourne, a distinct smell filled the small lecture hall we were in. It was the unmistakeable tell-tale sulphurous stink of a gas leak– which is bad news.
So we were immediately evacuated right in the middle of our lecture. It was only later that we realised that the smell didn’t come from a gas leak after all, but from one of the students who tried to sneak a bite of durian in the lecture. (I know, right?)
If you’ve ever kept an open durian overnight or in your fridge, you’ll know what smell I’m talking about. It’s a sulphurous, rotten egg kind of scent that really does smell like gas. You see, gas companies mix a stinky sulphurous compound into the poisonous odourless gas so you can detect dangerous gas leaks. And durians? They produce tons of this compound naturally, according to a team of Singaporean researchers in the journal Nature Genetics.
“To us it’s like a heavenly smell and it melts in your mouth,” lead researcher Professor Bin Tean Teh told ABC News.
But not everyone thinks so! Durians are famously banned in hotels and public transport areas, and everyone probably has laughed at a foreign friend who’s been repulsed by our beloved King of Fruit. With that in mind, Professor Teh and his team set about “analyzing biological processes related to durian odor”.
“Despite the importance of durian as a tropical fruit crop, durian-related genetic research is almost nonexistent,” they wrote in their research paper published today.
By cataloging every single gene in the durian, the team identified a few key possibilities that they think are responsible for the durian’s signature scent.
As it turns out, the durian possesses a number of genes and enzymes that are involved in the production of those smelly sulphur compounds we talked about earlier– most notably an enzyme called MGL.
And durians are so potent, they have four times more genes producing the MGL enzyme compared to related plants! (They also found that durians are related to cotton and cacao plants– who would’ve thunk it!) And stronger-tasting durians like our very own Musang King have more of this than milder Thai variants like the Monthong. And while this isn’t a definite case-closed proof, it’s a strong case and knowing more about the durian is never a bad thing.
The team speculate that their findings could mean big things for durian industry. With the genetic knowledge of a species, you can theoretically modify it to create the ideal fruit to suit your needs.
The researchers speculate that removing the MGL enzyme could produce a durian that smells and tastes less pungent. Other manipulations can also make durians ripen faster or contain less sugar.
But for now, we think durians are perfect just as they are.