Earth & Conservation

We've Bred the Taste Out of Tomatoes. Here's How to Bring It Back.

A Florida scientist is on a mission to restore flavor to grocery store tomatoes.

<p><a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/sean_hickin/" title="Go to sean_hickin's photostream">Sean Hickin</a>/Flickr</p>

The novelist Tom Robbins has said that if he were ever offered a last meal, he would ask that it be a sun-warmed tomato sliced and placed on two pieces of white bread, slathered in Best Foods or Hellman's mayo.

Americans buy $2 billion worth of fresh and processed tomatoes each year, according to the USDA, and only China produces more of them. The rosy-red fruit inspire strong feelings in some - and one thing most can agree on is that store-bought varieties are lacking a certain punch in the taste department.

Harry Klee, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, has found his calling in bringing back the hearty flavor of original tomatoes that was lost over decades of breeding in favor of higher yields and durability, with no means to select for taste. He led a global team that worked to identify which of hundreds of chemicals in modern, heirloom, and wild varieties give tomatoes their flavor. Their study has just been published in the journal Science.

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"We're just fixing what has been damaged over the last half century to push them back to where they were a century ago, taste-wise," Klee remarked in a release announcing his team's research.

Klee's methods rely on classic genetics rather than genetic modification. They are meant to be repeatable on a farm to produce a great-tasting crop.

The team studied versions of DNA in a tomato gene, called alleles, which deliver certain traits.

"We wanted to identify why modern tomato varieties are deficient in those flavor chemicals," Klee said. "It's because they have lost the more desirable alleles of a number of genes."

The researchers identified the location of the alleles favorable to good taste in the tomato genome. Then they mapped the genes that synthesize chemicals in the fruit. They used genetic analysis to replace bad alleles in modern tomatoes with good ones.

Actually breeding the tastier tomatoes will take years, but it's worth it.

"We can make the supermarket tomato taste noticeably better," Klee affirmed.

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