Geeking Science: Nori

Image courtesy of KEKO64 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My love of sushi and my budget are often at odds now my favorite sushi chef has retired from the local buffet. He was amazing, offering dozens of versions of fresh sushi, and snuck me sashimi on the side. Three plates of sushi for all-you-can-eat buffet prices. The new guy isn’t nearly as good; now the sushi is worth what I pay for it with no sashimi at all. The result is still better than pre-made grocery-store-bought crap so when I need a fix I return to the buffet.

(If you ever want to buy me food, fried chicken and good sushi – at different meals – are the way to my heart.)

Today’s geeking science is about how the sushi craze nearly didn’t happen, how science discoveries belong to the entire world, and how strange and wondrous life forms are.

The full article is available on Ars Technica: “How an unpaid UK researcher saved the Japanese seaweed industry” by Esther Inglis-Arkell, posted November 19, 2017.

Nori, wonderful, tasty seaweed – perfect straight or wrapped around vinegar-soaked rice with a bit of fish, was impossible to cultivate. Japanese farmers every year would put out bamboo and rope frames and wait for filaments to form and grow into large plants. No seeds, no flowers, no saplings, no transplants. Spontaneous generation, or so it seemed. Some years were better than others.

In 1951 production stopped. Spontaneous generation no longer occurred.

Americans didn’t feel the pinch since the Kawafuku Restaurant in Los Angeles, CA didn’t put sushi on the map until the 60’s, where it spread first throughout the urban centers by the 80’s, and finally to Chinese buffets in small Southern cities by the 90’s. But the Japanese lost a favorite food.

On the other side of the world, Kathleen Drew-Baker just completed a path to discover something wondrous. Fired from her teaching job because of the sin of marriage, she became a research assistant (in modern speak, unpaid intern). Common practice of the day required women to be released when they marry so they could pay proper attention to their husband’s careers instead of a day-job; more accurately women were expected to resign and then, if teachers, continue to work unpaid. But that is a different post not related to the scope of this blog.

Back to the amazing Kathleen Drew-Baker. She was poking around with a seaweed that grew in Wales used by locals for bread and soup. The seaweed grew during the winter months, seemingly by spontaneous generation. She looked for spores, thinking fungi. But the spores she found led to a pink sludge growing inside shells during the summer months.

The seaweed led a double-life, during the winter as a leafy green seaweed and the summer as a pink sludge hanging out inside a shell. Like a caterpillar and butterfly without cocoon stage to mark the difference.

Being a scientist she published the discovery in Nature on October 29, 1949 through a paper entitled “Conchocelis-Phase in the Life-History of Porphyra umbillcalis (L. Kutz)“. (Yes, she was allowed to publish under her own name. She wasn’t living in medieval times; she just wasn’t allowed to make a living at being a scientist or teacher.)

In Japan, a scientist ran across it and thought, maybe that applies to the Japanese seaweed too. He looked. It did.

No longer restricted by unpredictable spontaneous generation, the Japanese farmers have gone big business, industrialized farm on the seaweed. Temperature control, testing different shells, maximizing light. Each and every stage of the double-life growth cycle tested and maximized for production. Production on a scale large enough to feed not only a growing Japan, but the rest of the world’s love of sushi.

Cool side note: Every year Uto City holds a festival honor of Kathleen Drew-Baker.

To read the full article (explaining the controls used to maximize nori growth – because who wouldn’t want to know that?!?) go here: https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/11/how-an-unpaid-uk-researcher-saved-the-japanese-seaweed-industry/

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