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Researchers have sequenced the genome of 400 different tomato varieties

Why it matters to you

Researchers have isolated the chemicals which make the best tomatoes taste so good. Next step? Making supermarket-bought ones even tastier.

Modern science has a new problem in its sights: restoring the flavor of bland supermarket tomatoes.

In a new paper, published in the journal Science, researchers in the United States and China break down the first steps in what they hope could soon bring us more flavorsome shop-bought tomatoes.

“In terms of value, tomato is the largest fruit or vegetable crop in the entire world,” University of Florida Professor Harry Klee, one of the study’s authors, told Digital Trends. “It’s been adopted into virtually every cuisine in the world. But if you ask anyone in the developed world, they’ll tell you that the quality of supermarket tomatoes is not good. Most everyone has at some point tried one of the older, delicious varieties of tomato and know what it is capable of delivering — and store-bought tomatoes just don’t live up to it.”

The study carried out by Professor Klee and others has been ongoing for the past 12 years. It involved carrying out taste tests, as well as chemical and genetic analysis, on hundreds of varieties of tomatoes.

“What we’ve shown is that tomatoes available in stores are significantly deficient in about half of the important flavor volatile chemicals, the aroma compounds which give tomatoes their unique flavor,” he continued. “With our collaborators, we also sequenced the genomes of 400 different varieties and carried out a genetic association study, mapping out on the genome the areas that areas that influence the synthesis of those important flavor chemicals.”

One of the big challenges with tomatoes, Klee said, is that they have particularly complex flavors. The researchers have identified 30 different compounds, all of which contribute in some way to how a tomato tastes.

“There is no single compound which is a ‘tomato flavor,’” he said. “That’s not true for things like banana, blueberry, or strawberry. For all of those I could give you one volatile chemical you could smell and instantly recognize. It’s the complexity of tomato which makes this project difficult. It’s really a large mixture of chemicals which, when combined, registers in your brain as a tomato flavor.”

Still, the researchers are making progress. While they’ve decided not to pursue a GMO approach to creating more flavorsome tomatoes, Klee said that the plan is to use “traditional breeding approaches involving older varieties to rescue the genetics that have been lost.”

The ultimate plan is to get tastier tomatoes into the hands (and, well, the stomachs) of the general public within the next three years.

Can science next work out why Snickers seem to have gotten so much smaller since we were kids?