Saturday, July 12, 2008

Comparing Apples and Pears

I have two pear trees in my garden. In the middle of August, the grass is suddenly covered in rotting pears. Why do pears rot faster than apples?

People have long observed that pears sink in water, while apples float. The pear is more dense, and has a higher water content. Apples continue to breathe (absorb oxygen) after they are picked, which keeps them fresh, but pears get out of breath (don't absorb much oxygen) and can decay fairly quickly.

From a human point of view, apples are more "well-behaved" than pears, and fruit growers and supermarkets would like pears to behave more like apples. Belgian scientists have now discovered differences in the cell structure that explain why apples can breathe better than pears.

But what does "better" mean? The apple is more efficient at staying fresh. But the pear is more efficient at rotting. Why is staying fresh better than decaying? The biological purpose of the pear is to grow a new pear tree, not to get wrapped in plastic and put onto a supermarket shelf. For the pear, staying fresh is a bad idea because it delays the fulfilment of its biological purpose.

If we try to understand botanical behaviour in terms of human purpose, we may get curious results.

[Source: Jonathan Amos, Apples beat pears on crunch issue, BBC News 11 July 2008]


Joshua Browning said...

Is the biological purpose of an apple not to grow another apple tree, as well?

Richard Veryard said...

Of course the biological purpose of the apple is to grow another apple tree. Does it achieve this purpose by pandering to the commercial interests of large supermarket chains, staying fresh while other right-thinking fruit merrily rot? Well yes it can, as long as it can persuade humans to assist with the propagation. Apples are obviously smarter than anyone thought.