Researchers Identify Key Flavor Genes in an Attempt to Improve Commercial Tomatoes

A team of researchers has just pinpointed the genes behind tomato flavors. Modern supermarket tomatoes often lack flavor when compared to locally grown heirloom tomatoes. Identifying the genes responsible for richer flavors will allow plant breeders to breed the best tomatoes. The findings are in a paper that was just published in the journal Science.

Tomatoes from supermarkets tend to be less flavorful when compared to tomatoes that were locally grown. Heirloom tomato varieties, generally grown by gardeners and small farms, have richer, sweeter, flavors. Some of the differences can be attributed to how commercial tomatoes are shipped and stored. A study published in 2016 showed that tomatoes lose flavor when stored in the refrigerator. The main factor that affects these flavor differences is a set of chemicals called volatiles. Commercially-grown tomatoes also lack sugar, explaining why heirloom tomatoes tend to taste sweeter. Identifying the genes between sugar and volatile production could help plant breeders develop new, better tasting, tomato varieties.

Researchers from the University of Florida used consumer taste panels and genomic analyses to test 398 tomato varieties, including wild tomatoes. The team used this information to connect specific genes to flavors. The researchers also analyzed the genomes of commercial supermarket tomatoes to see which genes were missing when compared to heirloom varieties. They found that many key flavor genes were completely absent from modern supermarket tomatoes.  Knowing this information, the researchers can share their findings with plant breeders. This would help breeders select the proper tomatoes to breed, potentially improving the flavor of commercial tomatoes—without any genetic modification.

Customers often complain about the flavorless supermarket tomatoes, especially when they compare them to tomatoes grown in their garden or at local farms. Researchers now know the genes that control tomato flavor and sugar content. In the future, plant breeders will be able to use this information to breed better, more flavorful tomato varieties.

REFERENCE

Tieman et al. A chemical genetic roadmap to improved tomato flavor. Science (2017).

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