What’s in What we Eat?

I conducted this project as part of Professor Pringle’s EEB321 class at Princeton University.

I’ve always loved cooking. Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve always watched my grandma cook her special spaghetti Bolognese, I’ve tagged along when my mom stirred up some oxtail, and I’ve closely observed when my dad made his special “Mali Rice”. The aroma of a nicely cooked meal that lingered in the kitchen for hours after dinner always made my mouth water. And after many years of watching, I have recently begun to partake in the cooking process a lot more. Since I am at home and have a lot more time on my hands, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been cooking dinner once a week for my family. My meals range from fettuccine alfredo to baked chicken wrapped in prosciutto, and I love every second I’m cooking.

But I wanted to take this hobby of mine to the next level and I asked my mom if we could start growing our own herbs. She agreed and we bought a long pot where we grow thyme, cilantro, basil, rosemary, parsley and many more. Utilizing these herbs in my meals has given the food I cook a new dimension, and for this project I decided to use the Foldscope to take a closer look at one of them: ivy. I wanted to investigate whether there was a difference between the cells we can see in this tasteful herb versus the cells of a “regular” leaf.

To gather both, I went into my garden and picked out one of each. The “regular” leaf I used was one from a Japanese pachysandra plant which can be found in the northeast of the States.

Image of the Japanese pachysandra

This particular leaf is not known for its flavor and it is rarely used in cooking. When I used my Foldscope to gain a closer view of it, I obtained the following image:

Foldscope view of the Japanese pachysandra leaf

The image is very green and the difficulty of seeing the vascular tissue of the leaf show how dense it was. And this dense nature of the leaf made me think that maybe that is why it doesn’t taste very good. Then, came the ivy plant. Ivy is known for its strong vegetal flavor and smell and it is often used to make delicious tea. It also has labiate flavonoids that can be used for medicinal purposes.

The English groud-ivy plant

When I put this plant into my Foldcscope, I obtained a very different image:

Foldscope view of the English ground-ivy plant

The first difference I noticed was the vibrant colors of the ivy plant and the fact that we could see the vascular tissue much more clearly. So I then wondered why there was such a clear contrast in color between the herb and the “regular” leaf which led me to an article from National Geographic titled: “Microscopic images reveal how herbs get their flavor” (written by Rob Dunn). The explained how herbs generally have glands that contain chemicals packed with flavor. These chemicals were originally produced as defense mechanisms against predators, but as the saying goes ” One beast’s drink is another beast’s poison”. The chemicals that keep herbs from danger in the wild generate wonderful tastes for humans and we have grown to use them in almost every meal! Hence, I hypothesized that the brighter colors of the vascular tissue in the ivy plant could be attributed to these chemicals that make them taste so good.

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