Copyright: Mi.Ti.

Italian scientists provide food for thought

You know that you’re not reporting on an ordinary science meeting when a waiter drops penne and tomato sauce on your notes. But then, this is Italy.

At the Euroscience Open Forum yesterday, Italian scientists tried to draw attention to their cutting-edge work by combining it with something for which their country is even more famous: food. A lavish six-course “Biolunch'” for 50 reporters offered up a variety of specialties from the Piemonte region in a downtown restaurant, each paired with a short talk on a related science topic. The organizer, Jacopo Pasotti, hopes it will set a delicious new trend in science communication.

A panzanella, for instance—a bread salad with tomatoes, basil, and cannellini beans—was the occasion for Roberto Papa of the Marche Polytechnic University in Ancona to discuss how beans were domesticated in the Americas and transplanted to Europe. Paola Bonfante of the University of Turin explained how the sequence of the truffle genome, published in Nature by a French-Italian team this year, is changing research into the prized delicacy. Another regional treat—steak tartare with slivers of summer black truffle—underlined the importance of her research.

Truth be told, their 5-minute talks didn’t dig too deeply into the science. This was probably for the better, because the wines—a fresh, elegant Pinot Bianco and a robust Nebbiolo—were already flowing in abundance.

Next on the menu, which was sponsored by the Piemonte Innovation Cluster and Sardegna Ricerche, the Sardinian agency for R&D, was a seafood pasta, accompanied by a presentation by Maurizio Casiraghi of the University of Milano-Bicocca, who explained how unique genetic signatures known as DNA bar codes can help identify species rapidly. This is useful not just in science but also at Italian fish markets, where not everything is what it’s claimed to be, Casiraghi said. Verifying seafood by their DNA bar codes can protect gullible consumers’ wallets, as well as their health, since some people are allergic to certain kinds of seafood. What’s more, said Casiraghi, it can help to keep endangered species off the markets.

Next came a vegetarian risotto, and Riccardo Velasco of the Istituto Agrario San Michele all’Adige, who works on “genomics-assisted breeding” in apples and grapes. (He led one of the groups racing to sequence the grape genome several years ago.) Over the main course, Giorgio Bertorelle of the University of Ferrara discussed his research into the domestication history of the aurochs (Bos primigenius), the bigger, wilder, fiercer predecessor of the modern-day cow. Some scientists are trying to bring this beast back to life, but the veal served with Bertorelle’s talk—roasted to perfection and served with chopped hazelnuts—made one wonder whether this is really necessary.

The dessert was for evolutionary biologist Andrea Pilastro of the University of Padua. Pilastro studies post-copulatory sexual selection—that is, how females decide which male’s sperm will fertilize their eggs—but he had decided that discussing the quality of ejaculate over pannacotta was not a great idea. Instead, he talked about his work on the function of male ornamentation, such as the blue tit’s bright hues. Waiters had offered the audience the choice between plain pannacotta or a garnished version (photo), and most opted for the latter—proving, Pilastro said, that a little extra investment can make all the difference when it comes to attraction.

As they sampled the dessert wine—a 2003 Erbaluce di Caluso—the audience was convinced: Italy really has a lot to offer to hungry science journalists. And some appetizing research as well.

This article was submitted to the EuroScientist journalism competition 2010 and came in 1st place and is reposted here with the kind permission of ScienceNOW, Science magazine’s daily news website

Featured image credit: Mi.Ti. via Shutterstock

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Martin Enserink

Martin has a Masters’ degree in Biology and worked as a news reporter at Science’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. for 5 years; in 2004, he became a contributing correspondent, based in Paris and Amsterdam.

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