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With current (early-21st century) technology and science level, suppose that a new fruit is discovered on some island. This fruit is imported and marketed around the world.

Unknown to anyone, this fruit extends the life span of those who consume it. The more regularly you eat this fruit, the longer your life will be. I'm not a biologist, so I can't really define the method by which this is done, but something along the lines of slowing the aging process, e.g. by allowing more cell replications than the usual limit. So the earlier in life you start consuming this fruit, the longer your life will be - in some cases even double your life span.

My question is - will this property of the fruit be discovered at all? If so - how will it be done and how long will it take?

Longer life spans can easily be attributed to advances in medicine and science, so I'm not sure how easily this will be traced back to consuming this fruit.

It might depend on how common this fruit is going to be, so please specify in the answer if the identification method requires common/rare consumption.

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    $\begingroup$ This sounds very like the premise of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trouble_with_Lichen $\endgroup$ May 10 at 9:49
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    $\begingroup$ Depends on what is the mechanism of life extension. If it does not manifest itself to the doctors and researches in any noticeable way, this may take long. If it cures some incurable diseases like Alzheimer's, it may be rather quick. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    May 10 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ Increasing the number of cell divisions allowed isn't enough, as that's just cancer. If you want proper techno-babble, google "senescence" and "telomere". $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    May 10 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ What if the fruit is given to animals with short life-spans, such a mice? The effect might be more noticeable. $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    May 11 at 0:52
  • $\begingroup$ This wondrous new fruit nobody has heard of before might well be marketed and sold as a miracle anti-ageing cure, long before any real scientist has investigated it. $\endgroup$
    – kaya3
    May 11 at 8:52
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Without some significant immediate effect, such as erasing some of the obvious signs of aging (wrinkles, liver spots, etc) within a short period of time, the life extension properties won't be noticed at all for several decades, if at all.

After 10 years, a few people will have lived ~5 years longer than they otherwise would have. That's well within the normal variation and will go completely unnoticed.

20 years after the fruit is introduced a larger group of people will have lived an extra 10 years. Since they were already in the 'very old' group at the start, and many of their peers have succumbed to illness, pre-existing conditions and so on. While the age numbers are starting to reach a statistical threshold, the numbers are still quite small. People might start to notice that a lot more people are living past 100 years, but the average age of death has been increasing for centuries so it's not really big enough to be interesting.

30 years, and now we're getting to interesting territory. The record for the oldest person in the world has been broken a few times. The average age of the top 100 oldest people in the world goes from ~115 years (I know, right?) to > 120 years. This is a major statistical anomaly, but one that might not be noticed by anyone not actively studying the statistics of age.

40 years on and the odds are fairly high that a person will reach 130 years of age for the first time. People start to take note. Studies are begun to identify the causes, but with 40 years of medical advances and so on it's going to take a while before someone even realizes that the numbers started 4 decades back. Rigorous statistical analysis will identify the time-frame of the cause, then a bunch of studies will be done to identify what changed around that time. With thousands of factors to consider it's going to take a while. They'll probably find it eventually, but it might be 50 years after introduction before it becomes clear that the fruit is the source of the increased lifespan.


There are a few ways this can go horribly wrong.

GMO Hell

Meanwhile, the fruit has become so valuable as a desirable food crop that the agricultural industries have already made a number of changes to the genetics of the plant. They've made the fruit larger, grow faster and so on. In the process of breeding the plant for these desirable traits they destroyed the genetic sequence that produced the specific enzyme that increases the lifespan. While the original genome still exists in a small number of plants, the commercially modified version is by far the most common. Only a handful of small fruit farms - specializing in the purest of organic, natural foods - still produce the original fruits, and only their customers are getting the benefits. Suddenly that anomaly in the age statistics flattens out and drops back to historical norms, with only a tiny increase over historic trends.

Having failed to identify the cause, most of the researchers will eventually be moved to more profitable work.

If this happens then it's going to be a long, long time before anyone discovers that the original fruit, now only available from a handful of organic hobby farms around the world, is anything special. Probably by accident.

Exclusivity

Maybe in the first few years someone starts using the fruit as feed for lab animals and notices that mice who eat the fruit as part of their diet tend to have fewer degenerative diseases and live longer on average. They start a study, feeding various parts and amounts of the fruit to different groups of rats and figure out the most effective numbers. They end up with a 6 year old mouse, twice the average maximum age of a mouse in lab conditions.

Of course humans being what they are the next thing that happens is that someone publishes a detailed - and entirely false - paper claiming that the plant is actually toxic to some fraction of the population and is in fact to blame for the increase in some obscure health condition. Governments move to restrict the sale of the fruit, eventually banning it altogether as a foodstuff. Federal troops start burning crops again, and nobody really complains because it's just some odd fruit that is nice and all, but if it's actually toxic then better to get rid of it.

A few pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars trying to isolate the compound, while a small number of powerful, wealthy people are the only ones left in the world who have access to the raw fruit. Within a decade the only plants left are the ones on special production farms where the fruit is grown for 'medical research' purposes. The largest pharmaceutical companies begin to sell age extension products at a price that only the top 0.5 percent of the population - and the CEO of the pharmaceutical company - can even consider. It's the most expensive fruit juice the world has ever known.

Free Access

Letting the effects stack up until they become statistically noticeable is going to take a long time - at least 20 years before it becomes significant enough to pique someone's interest. To get it noticed earlier you're going to need to see the effects either on a population of short-lived animals (like the lab mice) or in an existing population of humans that have been eating the fruit for a long time. Let's say there are native tribes who live in the area the fruit was found, but don't have much interaction outside of their tribal groups. They actually live for well over 150 years on average, but nobody has ever been able to figure that out. Eventually an anthropologist studying one of the tribes figures out that some of the village elders are way over 100 after they start talking to him about some major event they witnessed and he figures out how long ago it was.

This leads to studies being conducted and the world finds out about the small tribe in Papua New Guinea or the Amazon Basin that lives to be 150 years old. Researchers spend years trying to work out why it is happening, and eventually figure out that the ones who live the longest are the ones who regularly eat the fruit. The ones who don't like the taste or don't have access to the fruit due to geography have normal life spans for other tribal groups in the region.

By the time the cause is discovered it is too late for the world powers to cover it up. The fruit is already out there, exported to various parts of the world as a new foodstuff. It grows well in a variety of environments, appeals to the majority of people and becomes a favorite food for many. Juice from the fruit starts to out-sell orange juice, and orange-producing locations in various parts of the world transition to producing the new fruit. Before anybody knows about the medical properties of the fruit - and the juice as well - it has become far too common to be suppressed.

Within 50 years the average age of death from age-related causes has risen significantly. People are staying fit and healthy for much longer, average retirement age has gone up 20 years and the world's population has risen by 80% over even the most generous estimates, and it's getting worse. World poverty levels rise out of control, infrastructure designed for the prior predictions proves insufficient and systems fail. Food production can't keep pace with the population growth. Disease and famine claim millions of people a day, violence accounts for millions more, and still the population climbs. Some few people try to save the world from itself, but end up just causing more problems.

Pretty soon the world starts looking like Mad Max had a hate child with Idiocracy. Brave New World was the midwife.


I'm sure there are some good ways this could go, but I'm really not feeling positive about it. Perhaps a borderline misanthrope is not the best source of ideas here. ;D

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the various angles. I especially liked the scenario where this property was engineered out by mistake. Such a sour feeling for a reader of a story :) $\endgroup$
    – Asaf
    May 10 at 13:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Asaf I probably could have put a couple of good results in, I just wasn't feeling it at the time. In the right circumstances this could be a total boon for the human race. Honest :P $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    May 11 at 9:04
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    $\begingroup$ You missed a possible outcome, since the old control the wealth you'll see a revolution of the youth making the world look more like Logan's Run. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    May 11 at 10:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix Oh for sure, but that's probably a longer-term outcome once things have gotten a bit worse. Maybe the active agent in the fruit will begin a revolution in true anti-agathics and we'll see people reaching thousands of years old in the future... but I figured that was a little out of scope 😁 $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    May 11 at 10:39
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The property will probably be discovered, as the large use base will dramatically increase the chances someone stumbles on the effect.

It's very likely that somebody will notice it starting from a pet, i.e. giving this fruit to a rodent, like a hamster or a guineapig or some cage bird. Since these animals are way shorter lived than us, an increase in their life span will be easily noticed, until somebody will start to look into the rumor to see if it has any scientific foundation. For some really clever observer it might simply take the observation that fruit flies born from this fruit live way longer than their relatives born from other fruit.

It's sort of a similar path with respect to how dangerous substances are identified.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the pets and fruit flies - nice idea! $\endgroup$
    – Asaf
    May 10 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ The biggest +1 for me in this answer is that pets have more restrictive diets. $\endgroup$
    – Aww_Geez
    May 10 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ I’d be careful using pet birds. They tend to be very long lived, and many (parrots notably) can be expected to regularly outlive their owners $\endgroup$
    – Pingcode
    May 11 at 5:34
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While I find @Corey's answer more or less plausible, it depends on the specifics

So I will present a counterpoint how this fruits property will be discovered. First of all your part about "will be marketed around the world": no, not really. Unless it tastes good, is grown very cheaply and does well with ripening-in-containers etc. it won't see any widespread distribution. It'll be available in some niche exotic-fruits-shops, but nobody but people into that will buy it.

Which changes when some contact with the local tribe on the island is made (this time the ethno-protectionists lost), and it is discovered that they all live for 150 years regularly, despite the primitive level of medicinal care. A wild research hunt begins on the island, and the fruit will eventually be singled out (especially if the benefits are somewhat tangible, because then some exotic fruit connoisseurs will notice the subtle changes / boost in health etc., and work it backwards from there. Any "superfood" eventually gets some formal research when the hype becomes big enough, and imagine the shock if all the clickbait is scientifically proven!

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    $\begingroup$ If it tastes bad or is expensive to grow, then the people most interested in marketing and selling it could, ironically, be hucksters promoting its miraculous anti-ageing effects (without, of course, any scientific evidence that it's actually true). $\endgroup$
    – kaya3
    May 11 at 8:55
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    $\begingroup$ Nice counterpoint. Have my +1 $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    May 11 at 9:23
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Rare fruits for elite class only.

If the fruit is found on a distant island and is native to the place, then it's rare. And do you know what happens to the rare things in our world? They are strictly limited to the rich and elite. These rich and elite have all the resources and usually make sure to stay fit and get their body check-up on a thorough and regular basis, by highly trained doctors.

So, It happened one day that an old man was getting his checkup done and the doctor notices unusual healthy cells, same as he notices in his grandson. Then he start making inquires about eating habits and soon will reach to the conclusion that a new fruit is added to the diet.

A few more studies, experiments and voila, research papers, and noble prizes. :)

Note: Even if the fruit can essentially be grown anywhere on the planet, the rich (and the merchents too) will make sure to keep the fruit rare and limited to the island.

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    $\begingroup$ Attempts to limit a plant that can be grown anywhere are doomed. If the fruit can be shipped anywhere in the world, the technology is past the point of easy containment. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    May 10 at 13:12
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    $\begingroup$ Things that are rare by nature will only be afforded by the rich, since there are far more people that want them than are available. But I see no reason why a rare fruit that could be grown anywhere would remain rare - rich people can make even more money by selling them widely. The pineapple, for example, used to be a status symbol for the rich due to its rarity, but they're now very cheap due to improvements in cultivation and shipping. $\endgroup$ May 10 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ There's also a minor detail about rich people already living considerably longer than poor people. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    May 11 at 10:27
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Already happened

Malnutrition has been a major cause of death ever since the dawn of humanity. It still kills a lot of people prematurely today. Notice that this is different from hunger; A middle age, "well fed" citizen from any developed nation nowadays that dies of hamburger-clogged arteries is not hungry, but malnourished.

One form of malnutrition is poor vitamin intake. The "vita" in "vitamin" actually stands for "vital". One condition related to poor intake is called scurvy, a well known disease that killed every other sailor during the Age of Sail. It is caused by a vitamin C deficit. Minor forms of scurvy would also affect people who never sailed in their life, as long as they would have a poor intake of vitamin C.

If so happens that all citric fruits are a rich source of that vitamin, so as long as you consume oranges, lemons, tangerines or grapefruit regularly, you are mostly protected from scurvy (and many other conditions). Vitamin C also regulates a lot of bodily functions, including collagen production to immunity, so having a proper intake will also increase your lifespan and chances to live to have offspring in other subtle ways.

In many places during old times, having access to such fruits was a luxury - you either had access to an orchard or you had to find your supply of vitamin C somewhere else - for example: raw liver, if you are into that (though that has its own problems). Once electricity became commonplace and refrigeration became a thing, you could keep fruits fresh for long spans. Industrialization also made them cheap and widespread.


Sorry for all my rumbling above. As for the question proper:

will this property of the fruit be discovered at all?

From Wikipedia:

In 406 CE, the Chinese monk Faxian wrote that ginger was carried on Chinese ships to prevent scurvy.

The knowledge that consuming foods containing vitamin C is a cure for scurvy has been repeatedly forgotten and rediscovered into the early 20th century.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good thought as far as the question of people noticing the effects of foods goes. Scurvy is relatively fast, though. Symptoms develop within weeks, and once the person starts eating vitamin C again the symptoms improve noticeably within days. This wouldn't show effects for several years, which means much more uncertainty about which of the many things the person did and ate and was exposed to over that time actually made the difference. Unless, as somebody else mentioned, this food can actually reverse an age-related disease, or stop a normally fast-progressing one. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    May 12 at 3:24
  • $\begingroup$ @A.B. eating well will cause your lifespan to be increased by years, and you will notice this when you see that all those fruit lovers tend to live longer than burgervores. $\endgroup$ May 12 at 7:45
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    $\begingroup$ One particular fruit, out of all the things humans eat, is terribly specific, though. (And it's evidently not as impossible as all that for an "expert" to miss even the benefits of eating fruit in general - the medical consensus in Victorian times seems to have been that meat was the thing and eating too much fruit and vegetables was bad for you.) $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    May 12 at 8:07
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You make the statement that advances in science and medicine could be easily identified as a contributing factor to increased lifespan. There's a few things I could say about this, but the first would be to ask how? I would not necessarily associate longer lifespans with advances in medical technology per se. I think there are an "extremely high" number of factors that, both nuanced and opaque, contribute to longer life. 2020 saw a decline in the average lifespan for example. Was this because technology and medicine regressed? The [probably] obvious answer is no; it had more to do with statistical deviation due to a six sigma event. Discarding that data point however still doesn't explain how someone born in 1809 lived to be 95 years old at a time when the average was much lower than 95.

And then of course there's the question about whether or not eating this fruit would be considered an advance in medicine and how that would be measured within the larger data set.

Since the original question is about how this strand of spaghetti would be separated from the whole, the traditional answer would be that it could only be done statistically in a controlled experiment with a large data set and a control (those who didn't eat the fruit). That would provide the essential data needed to answer the question as to whether or not this singular lifestyle adaptation produced the results that were expected (increased longevity).

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  • $\begingroup$ This answer makes all the others look like "story-based" answers, however doesn't directly provide a path to an answer, more a suggestion of a better frame for the question, which would have been fine if it provided a solution too, but it doesn't, unless the spaghetti is specifically being looked at in detail which very often in life we know it's not. Welcome to the site, please take our tour and avail yourself of our help center for guidance as to how we work. Enjoy worldbuilding. $\endgroup$ May 11 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ I should add - impartially looked at in detail. Political, economic and social considerations confound so much research with self-interest and a view to personal gain, or consolidation of existing power structures. The question was, as many here looking for a mechanism by which it could be noticed - without providing details of their society, therefore looking for a "what would people notice in their everyday lives?" sort of answer. If the fruit is only taken-up by a few, it'll be noticed by individuals going about their lives first rather than statisticians or actuaries. $\endgroup$ May 11 at 19:40

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