Tomatoes are notoriously fickle and delicate, which makes them a nightmare to ship. As a result, a huge percentage of supermarket tomatoes are actually picked while still green, and then hit with ethylene gas, which turns them red – sometimes an enticingly deep, bright red – but not ripe. This is great for transportation; a firm tomato is more likely to stay intact during the shipping process. But it’s not great for flavor.
New work from the University of Florida is attempting to change all that through the wondrous science of genetic research.
The key to this research sounds simple at its core: what, exactly, makes a tomato taste good? To find out, the researchers first sequenced the genomes of nearly 400 types of tomato to find out exactly what’s going on genetically. A genome sequencing process finds the information for everything that plant will be – genes will determine whether a tomato is large or small, green or purple or red, oblong or rounded, and so on. And some of those genes are responsible for flavor, especially sugar and acid content.
The researchers then had a consumer panel judge a sampling of 101 different types of tomatoes for flavor. By cross-referencing the taste tests and the genome information, the researchers were able to narrow things down to 13 chemical compounds that are, they’re pretty sure, responsible for tomato flavor.
Now that these flavor compounds have been unearthed, it’s a fairly simple process to cross-breed tomatoes until they have high amounts of those compounds. Simple…and delicious.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the tomatoes in this study as genetically modified. The researchers are actually using traditional cross-breeding methods. We apologize for the error.