The College of New Jersey Logo

Apply     Visit     Give     |     Alumni     Parents     Offices     TCNJ Today

Discovering the Biodiversity on Your Plate

Taste test foods from across the tree of life while learning about the biodiversity that lives within us and the evolutionary origins of our food through three exciting meals.

Dishing Out Diversity

A new way to balance your diet

91.3 Wokery

With nearly 2 million described species on Earth, estimates suggest there are at least 6 million more to be described. Learn how scientists organize life on Earth in the form of trees and discover what you have in common with the mushroom on your plate. Click below to explore the menu and learn more!


Roasted Crickets

Cheddar Insect Larvae

Fried Frog Legs

Alligator Sausage

Snapper Soup

Roman Style Tripe

Beef Hot Dogs with Sauerkraut

Chicken Pot Stickers with Lime Fish Sauce

Mushrooms (woodear, cremini, porchini powder) & Asparagus Stir-Fry

Roasted Kohlrabi, Fennel & Yams

Vegemite Spread on Baguette


More Information

Our food has an evolutionary history of its own.

Many of us have early memories of a balanced meal being one that includes all the major food groups to meet the nutritional needs of our diets. Each of these ingredients is connected to a living organism – a plant, animal, fungi, bacteria – which has an evolutionary story of its own.

Consider Brussels sprouts – which many children love to hate due to its bitter taste. Brussels sprouts belong to the mustard family, a group of plants that produce mustard oil compounds (glucosinolates) in their leaves. From the perspective of the plant, these compounds have evolved to defend the plant from other organisms, such as caterpillars, that eat the leaves it for its own nutrition. Having sampled Brussels sprouts you might imagine how these mustard oil compounds successfully deter a variety of insect herbivores from devouring it! Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, collard greens and broccoli are all know to be a bit bitter. This makes sense as all of these plants have a shared evolutionary history – they have these compounds because they share a common ancestor that produced these compounds. This is the same reason in which you look have features in common with your your parents.

What is the Tree of Life?

Humans have been categorizing and classifying living organisms on Earth for hundreds of years. The relationships among these organisms is often displayed in the form of a tree, or what scientists now call phylogeny. These diagrams, not unlike a family tree, show us how each species is related to another. Since Darwin introduced his theory of evolution, scientists have been reconstructing trees based on evolution and common ancestry.  Species that share a more recent common ancestor are more closely related; and we recognize and name groups of organisms that share a common ancestor and all the species that derive from that ancestor – such as mammals, birds, and amphibians. Although you think you may know how to recognize a reptile, would you consider a bird a reptile? Click here to visit our interactive tree and learn more about the evolutionary relationships among reptiles, birds, and dinosaurs.

With nearly 2 million described species on Earth, scientists typically work on pieces of the tree of life – they specialize on particular groups of species (e.g., family or genus). With an estimated 6 million species that are yet to be described, taxonomists (scientists who study classification) have much more to do! How then can we reconstruct a tree of all life? The first draft of the tree of life is here and it includes 2.3 million tips – a monumental effort by Hinchliff, Smith and colleagues. The figure shown here is just a snapshot of their work – the entire tree can be viewed on their website: This work united findings from hundreds of published trees in the literature to create this digital publically available resource for the scientific community and those interested in the study of the tree of life.

Image Credit: Hinchliff and Smith et al. 2015. PNAS.

Additional Resources


  1. E. Hinchliff, S. A. Smith, J. F. Allman, J. G. Burleigh, R. Chaudhary, L. M. Coghill, K. A. Crandall, J. Deng, B. T. Drew, R. Gazis, K. Gude, D. S. Hibbett, L. A. Katz, H. D. Laughinghouse IV, E. J. McTavish, P. E. Midford, C. L. Owen, R. H. Ree, J. A. Rees, D. E. Soltis, T. Williams, and K. A. Cranston. 2015. Synthesis of phylogeny and taxonomy into a comprehensive tree of life. PNAS. 112(41):12764-12769.


Th​e​ tree ​above ​represents all 149 ingredients used ​at the Tasting the Tree of Life event. Green branches represent the ingredients used ​at the Wok.

Image Credit: IMMpress Magazine

How diet affects the bacteria within you

Bamboo Gardens

50% of the cells in your body and 99% of the genes in your gut are actually from microbes – single celled organisms including bacteria, viruses, and archaea. These tiny organisms make up your microbiome. What you eat affects your microbiome – click below to explore the menu and learn more!


Smoked Salmon & Avocado Spring Roll

Asian Vinaigrette Dipping Sauce

Spicy Asian Broccoli Salad

Hibiscus Iced Tea

More Information

What is your microbiome?

You might think of yourself as human, but you’d be at least half-wrong. It turns out that only about 50% of the cells in and on your body are “yours” – the rest are microscopic organisms or “microbes,” mainly bacteria. These organisms comprise your microbiome. If we count genes, with different genes usually coding for proteins carrying out different biological functions, you’re even less human. Your microbiome contains approximately 100 times more genes than the human genome, so by that measure you’re only 1% human!

When you are born, your body is colonized by bacteria from your mother and the environment. Overtime, bacteria and other microbes establish distinct populations in different parts of your body from your nose to your toes and nearly every place in between with the bulk of your microbial “half” found in your intestines. These tiny organisms form what is sometimes called the “forgotten organ” and play important roles in digesting and harvesting energy from your food, as well as the development and regulation of your immune system.

Does diet affect your microbiome? What impact might this have on your health?

Recent advances in DNA sequencing technology allow us to study the microbiome in ways that were previously impossible. We can identify what types of bacteria are present, how those populations differ between individuals and how they change over time. These advances have led to an explosion of studies on the relationships between diet, the microbiome and disease. Changes in the gut microbiome have been associated with a broad range of diseases including obesity, diabetes, irritable bowel disease (IBD, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), colorectal cancer, autoimmune disease such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, asthma, and even mental health, including anxiety and depression.

Differences in diet can change the composition as well as the overall diversity of the gut microbiome, both of which can have health implications. High-fat, high-protein “Western-style” diets promote the growth of different bacteria and result in less diversity in the microbiome compared to a largely plant-based, high fiber diet, for example. These differences are associated with increases in obesity and metabolic syndrome, a set of factors indicating higher risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Artificial sweeteners and other ingredients in processed foods can also change the microbiome in a way that promotes metabolic syndrome. Saturated fats promote more inflammation in the gut compared to polyunsaturated fats. This increased inflammation is associated with IBD. One type of polyunsaturated fat, fish oil, appears to protect against obesity and insulin resistance, a risk factor for diabetes. These shifts can occur rapidly: high-fiber low-fat diets change the microbiome in 24-48 hours and whole grains can improve insulin tolerance as quickly as 3 days.

This field is in its infancy and many studies have demonstrated a correlation between diet, changes to the microbiome and various diseases. However, establishing causation – demonstrating that the change in the microbiome actually leads to disease rather than the other way around – is much more challenging. Causation has been shown in a few rare cases, but many scientists are working to determine whether shifts in the microbiome can cause specific diseases. In mice, for example, fecal transplants (depositing feces from one mouse into the intestines of another) between obese mice and normal weight mice resulted in obesity. A 2016 study showed that fecal transplants from Parkinson’s patients, but not from healthy individuals, led to worsening of Parkinson’s symptoms in mice. In these and many other cases, the microbiome is likely only one of many factors interacting in a complex way to illness. Still these represent tantalizing hints that the microbiome can contribute to disease, leading to the hope that the microbiome can be harnessed, perhaps in part via diet, to help treat or prevent disease.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

What does the future hold for the human microbiome?

If the microbiome can cause disease, then we may be able to use the microbiome to treat or even prevent disease. Scientists envision treatments for diseases that could include probiotics (specific live beneficial bacteria that are ingested), prebiotics (foods or supplements that promote the growth of specific types of beneficial bacteria) and yes, even fecal transplants… if patients can get past the “ick” factor. Differences in individual microbiomes can also change the effectiveness of drugs, suggesting that knowing the composition of a patient’s microbiome could allow doctors to provide more effective, personalized treatments. Even if microbes can’t be used to treat a specific disease, they could prove useful as early hallmarks of that disease, allowing us to detect illnesses before current diagnostics. These medical advances are in varying stages of development, but, for now, you can help to promote a healthy microbiome by eating a high-fiber diet with plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and incorporating small amounts of healthy fats like fish oil and other polyunsaturated fats. Maybe an apple a day really does keep the doctor away!

Additional Resources

The Microbiome

 Missing Microbes by Martin Blaser (author website:


Cho and Blaser. (2012). The human microbiome: at the interface of health and disease. Nature Reviews Genetics. 13:260-270.

Clemente et al. (2012). The impact of the gut microbiota on human health: an integrative view. Cell. 148:1258-1270.

Deans. Microbiome and mental health in the modern environment. (2017). Journal of Physiological Anthropology. 36:1.

Goldsmith and Sartor. (2014). The role of diet on intestinal microbiota metabolism: downstream impacts on host immune function and health, and therapeutic implications. Journal of Gastroenterology. 49:785-798.

Marchesi et al. (2016). The gut microbiota and host health: a new clinical frontier. Gut. 65:330-339.

Sonnenburg and Bäckhed. (2016). Diet-microbiota interactions as moderators of human metabolism. Nature. 535:56-64.


Th​e​ tree ​above ​represents all 149 ingredients used ​at the Tasting the Tree of Life event. Green branches represent the ingredients used ​at the Bamboo Gardens.

Ancient Farm to Today’s Table

Unearthing the geographical origins of a meal

Quimby’s Kitchen

We often think of tomatoes as a key ingredient in Italian cooking. Does that mean tomatoes are from Italy? While this region of the world may produce lots of tomatoes, their evolution actually tells a different story. Click below to explore the menu and learn more!


Italian Roasted Beef with Plum Tomatoes

Lentils & Bulgar

Horseradish Mashed Potatoes

Steamed Baby Carrots

Potlikker Collard Greens

More information

Ancient Origin Stories: Potatoes and Tomatoes

Potatoes were a staple of early European diets. These starchy plants are also at the center of food-based historical events such as the Irish potato famine which might cause us to believe that Europe is where this crop originated. However, potatoes were domesticated in the Andes of South America and are not native to Europe.

Like the potato, the tomato was first domesticated in the Andes of South America, and its origin is dated to 700 B.C. Its modern culinary connections, however, are with Italian and Mediterranean cuisine.  Without tomatoes, Italians would not have invented many of the foods that we like to enjoy on cheat days (like pizza!).

Scientists predicted that tomatoes were brought to Europe after exploring the New World. It took time, however, before the fruit was accepted as an edible crop. For starters, botanists in the 1500’s first classified the tomato as related to the mandrake and nightshade plants, which were well known as poisonous. Further, tomatoes were thought to be source of lead poisoning. At the time, wealthy Europeans often ate from pewter plates which are high in lead content. Tomatoes, when served on pewter, leaches lead from the pewter causing lead poisoning leading to sickness and death. It was not until the 1890s (and the invention of pizza one decade prior!) that widespread use of the tomato became normalized. Despite this and many other legends tied to the tomato that decreased its popularity – the tomato did finally make its way being a staple food in households across the world.

Today, the United States grows over 3 billion pounds of tomatoes annually, with many different varieties for many different tastes. New Jersey is recognized by many as producing the most flavorful tomatoes in the country.

Interested in the origins of more ingredients on your plate? Check out the interactive map provided by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) to search for crops and their origins across the globe.

On the Moove: Modern Domestic Cows

Life restoration of an Aurochs bull based on preserved skeletons and the literature.
Jaap Rouwenhorst via Wikimedia Commons

Cattle were domesticated from the now extinct wild aurochs, Bos primigenius, animals which were once found throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa. Genetic studies have concluded that cattle were domesticated from aurochs two different times – once in the Middle East and once on the Indian subcontinent. For the past 10,000 years, humans have bred many types of cattle through the process of artificial selection, selecting features that make them more useful.

What about cattle in the United States? Cattle have long played a role in American history, however, cattle are not native to the United States, but instead were brought to the Americas in the late 1400’s by European explorers. After their arrival, cattle were allowed to roam freely rather than being subjected to human mediated artificial selection as was the case for most all of our crops and domesticated animals. For the next 400 years, cattle were free to run wild, allowing cattle to evolve by natural selection adapting to the environment in the Americas. During this time, it is thought that cattle evolved resistance to certain diseases such as Texas fever and higher tolerance for drought conditions. Then in the 1800’s, humans again began breeding cattle subjecting these cattle to artificial selection to develop breeds such as the Texas longhorn that we know today.

The cattle in the Americas were originally brought from Europe, presumably from ancestors that resulted from the domestication event that occurred in the Middle East rather than the Indian subcontinent. But a recent genetic analysis reveals a more complicated history. The cattle brought to the Americas from Europe indeed have shared ancestry with the cattle domesticated in the Middle East. However, their family tree also seems to include genetic traces of cattle that were domesticated on the Indian subcontinent. How can this be? As it turns out, the cattle domesticated in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent co-inhabited and interbred in Africa. These hybrid cattle were brought to Spain, and it was the cattle from Spain that were brought by Columbus to the New World. Powerful new tools in genetic and genomic analyses are continually allowing more insight and a better understanding of the evolutionary history of our most common foods.


Additional Resources

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has an interactive map showing the origins of our food crops found here:

Literature Cited

Spooner, D.M., K. McLean, G. Ramsay, R. Waugh, G.J. Bryan. 2005. A single domestication for potato based on multilocus amplified fragment length polymorphism genotyping. PNAS. 102(41): 14694-14699.

McTavish, E. J., Decker, J. E., Schnabel, R. D., Taylor, J. F., and Hillis, D. M. 2013. New World cattle show ancestry from multiple independent domestication events. PNAS. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1303367110


Th​e​ tree ​above ​represents all 149 ingredients used ​at the Tasting the Tree of Life event. Green branches represent the ingredients used ​at Quimby’s Kitchen.

Salt Tasting

Introducing Archaea: the third domain of life

Nutritionist’s Table

Scientists have long thought there were two major forms of life – bacteria and eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus like humans). But there is more! Within the past 30 years we have discovered Archaea – organisms that share similarities with both Eukaryotes and bacteria. Click below to learn where we encounter Archaea in our food and to learn more about these fascinating organisms!

Image Credit: Heritage STSCI


Pink Himalayan Salt

Rock Salt

Sea Salt

Black Sea Salt

Smoked Sea Salt

More Information

Who are the archaea?

Until relatively recently, scientists classified all life forms as either bacteria or eukaryotes (organisms, like humans, with cells that have a nucleus). In 1992, Archaea were formally proposed as a third domain of life. Archaea display a mixture of features similar to bacteria and to eukaryotes, as well as some features that are unique to archaea alone. Many, but not all, archaea are extremophiles (literally “extreme lovers”) meaning that they grow and thrive in some of the most extreme and harsh environments on the planet such as hot springs and deep sea vents. Archaeal extremophiles are teaching scientists about how life can adapt to these extreme conditions. In fact, because archaea live in such harsh environments, their discovery has caused astrobiologists to expand the types of environments in space where they are looking for signs of life! Archaea are also being used to generate renewable energy sources and for bioremediation, using microorganisms to clean up toxic spills and the like.

Image Credit (top left): Imgur

Image Credit (bottom right): Live Science

Are there archaea in my food?

You bet! Some archaea thrive in high salt environments and can be found especially in fermented foods with high salt content like fish sauce and kimchi. Salt-loving archaea live in environments with naturally high salinity and can be found in many food-grade unrefined salts, including the Pink Himalayan salt and Black Sea salt feature at the salt tasting station. Archaea are also found in your body, particularly in your digestive tract. They’re in animal intestines, too, and are the only organism capable of producing methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that many associate with the smell of cow manure on a hot summer’s day. Turns out, cows aren’t to blame – the archaea living in the cows are!

Image Credit (left): Paleohacks Blog

Image Credit (right): Vaga Blogging

Where do archaea fit on the Tree of Life?

On the one hand, archaea and bacteria share a common cell type – prokaryotic cells – which lack a nucleus compared to eukaryotic cells which have a nucleus that stores DNA. This led scientists to originally suggest that archaea and bacteria were more closely related to each other than to eukaryotes (bottom tree at right). Comparison of DNA sequences, however, led scientists to draw the Tree of Life with eukaryotes and archaea more closely related to each other than to bacteria (top tree at right). However, scientists are still arguing over which tree best reflects evolutionary history!

How these three major lineages (bacteria, eukaryotes and archaea) relate to one another on the Tree of Life remains an open question. What is undisputed is that all three groups share a common ancestor. How can this be? All three groups do have features in common despite how different they may appear at first glance. For instance, all share DNA as their genetic material and all use a common genetic code to translate information from that DNA. Regardless, the discovery of archaea as separate from bacteria fundamentally altered our understanding of the Tree of Life and is helping us to better understand the origins and evolutionary history of life on earth.

Image adapted from: Caetano-Anollés, et al. (2014). Archaea: the first domain of diversified life. Archaea. 2014: 590214.

Additional Resources



Caetano-Anollés, et al. (2014). Archaea: the first domain of diversified life. Archaea. 2014: 590214.

Cavicchioli. (2011). Archaea – timeline of the third domain. Nature Reviews Microbiology. 9:51-61.

Forterre. (2013). The common ancestor of archaea and eukarya was not an archaeon. Archaea. 2013:372396.

Henriet. (2014). Exploring the diversity of extremely halophilic archaea in food-grade salts. International Journal of Food Microbiology. 191:36-44.

Lee. (2013). Diversity of halophilic archaea in feremented foods and human intestines and their application. Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology. 23:1645-1653.

Namwong. (2007). Halococcus thailandensis sp. nov., from fish sauce in Thailand. International Journal of Systematic of Evolutionary Microbiology. 57:2199-2203.



This tree represents all 149 ingredients used at the Tasting the Tree of Life event.  Green branches represent the ingredients used in the Salt Tasting.