Big genetics study blazes path for bringing back tomato flavor

Genetics of heirloom vs. mass-market varieties suggests new targets for breeders

various tomatoes

UNITED NATIONS OF TOMATO  Studying the genetics of flavor in heirloom tomatoes (shown) suggests ways to breed more taste into supermarket varieties, a new study finds.

H. Klee/University of Florida

An analysis of nearly 400 kinds of tomatoes suggests which flavor compounds could bring heirloom deliciousness back to varieties that were bred for toughness over taste.

About 30 compounds are important in creating a full-bodied tomato flavor, says study coauthor Harry Klee of the University of Florida in Gainesville. He and colleagues have identified 13 important molecules that have dwindled away in many mass-market varieties. Some of the flavor compounds deliver such a thrill to the human sensory system that even a modest increase could make a big difference, the researchers report January 26 in Science.

“I think this will definitely help,” says Alisdair Fernie, who was not part of the study but has studied tomato chemistry at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam, Germany. “Taste is incredibly complex,” he says, so creating more appealing commercial varieties “for certain, requires a holistic approach,” he says.

To achieve that holistic view, the researchers teamed up with geneticists at China’s Agricultural Genomics Institute in Shenzhen, who determined the full genetic makeup of a whopping 398 kinds of tomatoes, wild as well as heirloom and commercial. The scientists ran 96 varieties of tomatoes through taste-testing panels, looking for genetic and chemical similarities among those varieties ranked tastiest.

Much of what makes some tomatoes taste better is actually smell, Klee points out. Tongues can detect relatively few qualities, such as sweetness, acidity and softness. Chemical detectors in the nasal passages are far more varied and sensitive. So what really puts the “Mmmm” into a tomato is the whoosh of air forced up into the nasal passages as someone swallows. Airborne compounds, known as volatiles, are abundant in tomatoes, and Klee looks to them for flavor magic.

Of these volatile compounds, some appear in even the tastiest tomatoes at minuscule levels — only parts per trillion. But human senses respond so strongly to the odors that a little bit goes a long way. Tomatoes should taste noticeably better if researchers can breed just four or five heirloom versions of volatile-producing genes back into commercial varieties, Klee says.

Increasing the sweetness of today’s tomatoes, on the other hand, may be tougher. About 80 percent of the sugar in commercial tomatoes comes from the leaves and is transferred to the big red globes as they mature (SN: 7/28/12, p. 18). Because breeders have done such a great job of maximizing the number of fruits on a plant, the plants would need lots of leaves to sweeten them all. So the price of sweeter tomatoes would be making them smaller, and fewer.

“Now we come to the real crux of the problem,” Klee says. “I have to fix the flavor, but I can’t compromise all of the stuff that breeders have done to the modern tomatoes to make them healthier, more productive, more disease resistant and more shippable,” he says.

And let’s not forget about what happens to tomatoes after they’re picked, says Ann Powell, who studied tomato ripening and disease resistance at the University of California, Davis and is now at the National Science Foundation. Cooling weakens flavor, as cooks who shriek at the horror of storing tomatoes in refrigerators have long known. Therefore, Powell says, another study of Klee’s from 2016 — on how chilling can turn on and off genes — makes an important companion to the new work. A combination of breeding better plants and coddling them strategically may be the way forward for tastier tomatoes.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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