Pet food companies have been keen to introduce new innovations in recent years.

But new research from the University of Sheffield shows that even the most simple food items can evolve in ways that are hard to predict. 

The researchers found that the proteins of food are often the same over thousands of generations.

And that evolution can have huge effects on the ingredients of food, says lead author of the study Dr Caroline Fyfe. 

Foods like potatoes and corn have long been considered to be the best candidates for evolution, but the authors argue that there is more to evolution than just that.

“It’s really hard to pin down a single evolutionary step that explains the origin of all these different proteins, but we’re looking at it in terms of evolution,” says co-author Dr James Watson. 

What the researchers found is that the protein proteins of many foodstuffs evolve over millions of years.

“The proteins are the same in all plants and animals that we have ever seen, but in a variety of different ways,” Dr Watson explains.

“We’ve found that evolution is not limited to one particular process but there’s a huge range of different steps that can go on in the evolution of these proteins.”

The proteins of the foodstuff are often similar, the researchers suggest, but there are also differences that make the proteins unique. 

“In a potato, for example, the protein structure is very different from the protein structures of a banana,” Dr Fyffes says.

“This suggests that the genes for making proteins evolved differently in different organisms. 

It is interesting to see that the very proteins that make potato are the proteins that are the most likely to have evolved in the last 50,000 years.”

It’s not just a matter of making different proteins.

“We’re finding that there’s very little variation between different plants that have been exposed to different environmental conditions,” Dr Jules says. 

If you look at plants today, you see that there are quite a lot of genes that are different in the different species of plants. 

So, for instance, you can have some very simple genes in one species and you can see that this variation has gone on for a very long time.

“There are very different adaptations to these genes in different species and these can be very subtle,” Dr Watson says.

The researchers also found that a number of other proteins in the foodstuff evolve in response to different conditions. 

For instance, a number are known to be involved in the metabolism of the plant, while another, called a ‘glucose transporter’, is involved in producing the energy from carbohydrates. 

These proteins are thought to be essential for maintaining the plant’s structure, which allows the plant to withstand the harsh conditions of the oceans and dry soil. 

Dr Watson says that the findings highlight the importance of understanding how proteins evolve in the first place.

“What we find is that when the genes that make proteins are changed, the proteins will evolve differently,” he says.

“In other words, the genes will change in a way that is more stable, less prone to changes that can lead to mutation, or changes that lead to the protein being different in a different way.”

Dr Watson and his colleagues are now working on analysing the protein sequences of many different foodstacks and determining whether these proteins evolved in response. 

In the meantime, the team is trying to understand how evolution works in a broader way. 

A new method of measuring the evolutionary rate at which proteins change is now being used in animal and plant evolution studies. 

And the researchers are also using new methods of genetic sequencing to analyse proteins in new ways. 

But for now, Dr Watson says the key question is how evolution has changed over time. 

Image copyright Science Photo Library The article is reproduced with permission from New Scientist magazine.