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Hazelnut Horror, Sneaking Dylan Into Science

by Andrea Widener
October 20, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 42


Credit: M. Unal Ozmen/Shutterstock
Nutella in the making: Blight-resistant trees would make more nuts available.
A bottle of Nutella.
Credit: M. Unal Ozmen/Shutterstock
Nutella in the making: Blight-resistant trees would make more nuts available.

Imagine a paper-thin crepe, fresh out of the pan, dripping with the creamy, chocolaty, hazelnut spread Nutella. The image alone could drive die-hard Nutella fans mad with cravings.

So, you can guess their reaction when an unusual cold snap killed much of the hazelnut crop in Turkey earlier this year. Because Turkey is by far the world’s largest hazelnut producer, with almost 80% of hazelnut trees worldwide, Nutella consumers almost immediately went bonkers. The price for hazelnuts, also called filberts, nearly tripled between March and September.

Ferrero, the Italian maker of Nutella, quickly sought to reassure its fans that there was nothing to worry about. But some soon began to wonder where else they could get their hazelnut hit.

Unfortunately, a pervasive fungal disease—Eastern Filbert Blight—makes it hard to grow hazelnuts in the U.S. Oregon produces 99% of the U.S. crop, but the ugly fungus is beginning to encroach there, too. And forget about it on the East Coast, where almost all hazelnut trees split and die because of the disease, says Thomas Molnar, a plant biologist at Rutgers University.

But Molnar may be able to help. He and his colleagues have been working since 1996 to bring a blight-resistant hazelnut tree to the eastern U.S. They traveled all over Europe looking for the perfect nut trees, then identified which ones could withstand the fungal assault.

Their original focus wasn’t just on hazelnuts—they were trying to find any nut tree that could flourish as a cash crop—but it turned out to be the best nut for New Jersey. Hazelnuts are a fairly simple crop for farmers, Molnar tells Newscripts. Healthy trees don’t require regular spraying like fruit trees do, and the nuts drop to the ground when ripe, which makes harvesting them relatively easy.

Molnar says his group has made good progress in identifying trees that produce the best nuts. They are still two or three years away from releasing a tree for the farming public, but he’s seen significant interest.

“Hazelnuts are becoming economically very important,” he says. They are so in demand, in fact, that his favorite Oregon supplier quit selling to individuals.

So, good luck to those of you seeking a filbert fix.

An addiction of a different kind is what drew several scientists in Sweden into an unusual competition: Who can work the largest number of Bob Dylan lyrics into scholarly publications before retirement?

The competitors work at the Karolinska Institute and clearly are massive Dylan fans. They started the competition 17 years ago, after two professors in the school’s physiology and pharmacology department, Jon Lundberg and Eddie Weitzberg, published an article with the title “Nitric Oxide and Inflammation: The Answer Is Blowing in the Wind” (Nat. Med. 1997, DOI: 10.1038/nm0197-30).

Credit: Gustav Mårtensson
Dylan dynamic: Scientists embed lyrics in scholarly papers.
Five men in casual clothing hold vinyl album covers.
Credit: Gustav Mårtensson
Dylan dynamic: Scientists embed lyrics in scholarly papers.

Several years later, colleagues Jonas Frisén, in the cell and molecular biology department, and Konstantinos Meletis, in the neuroscience department, titled their article “Blood on the Tracks: A Simple Twist of Fate?” (Trends Neurosci. 2003, DOI: 10.1016/s0166-2236(03)00125-5). After that, the competition was on. The winner will get lunch at a local restaurant.

Comparisons between Dylan lyrics and science were inevitable, given the competitors. “Good music is innovative, like Bob Dylan’s. And the same thing applies to good research,” Meletis says in a Karolinska publication.

They invite anyone else to join the contest. However, journal editors everywhere might beg them to let the opportunity pass, like a rolling stone.

Andrea Widener wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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