Scientists Hope Study Will Make Tomatoes Great Again

We're gonna put tomatoes first and make tomatoes great again! Harry Klee, University of Florida

Tomatoes bought in the supermarket quite often suck, frankly, their taste often not living up to their plump and juicy appearance.

So, a new study, published in the journal Science, mapped out the genetic make-up of hundreds of tomatoes and identified the genes that make them so tasty. This could now be used by farmers or tomato breeders to home in on those genes and restore this fruit to its former glory.

Over the past 50 years, tomatoes have gradually lost the complex blend of chemical compounds that are key to their flavor. That’s because tomato strains are often developed for other qualities, such as their coloring, size, hardiness, or more convenient ripening times. Flavor has been hard to fine-tune because breeders lack the tools to screen for it and the genes that code for it are seemingly random and hard to trace.

The US is second only to China in worldwide tomato production, yet it is China who wants to make tomatoes taste great again (we couldn't resist, sorry) by part-funding project. The Chinese government seems to have spotted some mouth-watering profits in commercializing a tastier tomato.

“Unlike Americans, we don’t eat a lot of pasta sauce or ketchup. Mostly, we stir-fry them or eat them fresh, so flavor is a major concern,” project co-leader Sanwen Huang told the Wall Street Journal. “I think there’s a trend where people are demanding tastier tomatoes. I think as Chinese get richer, they want better food.”

The international team of scientists started off by finding the chemical compounds that give their desired taste. They found the tomato's rich, deep, and sweet flavor is all down to 13 flavor-making sugars and volatile chemicals.

“We wanted to identify why modern tomato varieties are deficient in those flavor chemicals,” said Harry Klee, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, in a statement. “It’s because they have lost the more desirable alleles of a number of genes.”

Through genome sequencing the 398 modern, historic, and wild varieties of tomato, they managed to identify the locations of the good alleles that code for these crucial tasty chemical compounds.

Now scientists know where these genes can be found, it can serve as a resource for breeders to fine-tune the tomatoes they are creating.  

Of course, breeding numerous generations of a plant will take some time. But the researchers say new tomato varieties could be on the shelves in three to four years and will be more flavorsome than ever before. In fact, they might be the best tomatoes ever. It's true, they're gonna be great. 

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