Would a tomato by any other name taste as sweet?

I love tomatoes. They are hands-down one of my favorite foods to eat. Nothing beats a homegrown tomato, fresh off the vine at the end of the summer. This tomato… is not that kind of tomato:


I bought this perfectly nice tomato at the grocery. In January. It’s about the best you can get in the Midwest this time of year to add to a salad or some tacos or whatnot. It’s even sort of pretty, and the “on-the-vine” marketing gives it a certain authenticity for tomato goodness. But it just doesn’t taste that great. Why not?

I ran across some news articles this past week (for example, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/bringing-back-a-tastier-tomato/) that highlighted the results of a new scientific study by an international team of researchers, published in the flagship journal Science (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6323/391). The upshot is: commercial tomatoes don’t taste that great because, while we were busy making tomatoes sturdy and big and resistant to pests and so forth, we inadvertently bred out the traits for sweetness and the aromatic flavors that entice our taste buds and noses.

I’m a geneticist. I love thinking about genes. I’m pleased that these researchers (there are 20 of them on the team that published this report) dug into the genetic profile of tomatoes to identify those tasty traits that have turned up missing in recent years. They even propose a rather quaint solution–adding back selected flavor traits through new rounds of selective breeding.

So why begin my new blog by talking about this particular study?

The tomato story was widely reported in the news–even in a week dominated by other pressing stories from around the world. Science news doesn’t always get a lot of coverage in the traditional press, for various reasons that I may explore in later posts. I’m always interested in thinking about why a particular story makes the cut. In this case, I think it’s for two main reasons: (1) many people just plain find it hard to find a good tomato at the store (but would like to), and (2) the researchers proposed using traditional breeding–rather than targeted genetic modification (“GM” technology) to solve the problem. Given recent consumer controvery over some GM foods, that could be a straightforward approach to take and might prove popular with tomato buyers across the country.

On these pages, I plan to share other science news that catches my eye, and think about the role of science in our society. In the meantime, I will look forward to warm summer days and planting some tomatoes of my own to enjoy, while we wait to see what these scientists can “cook up” in their greenhouses!




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s