If you have ever wondered why that bright red tomato has no discernible taste, scientists have the answer: The tasteless tomato is due to a gene mutation that has been bred into almost all tomatoes because it turns them the perfect shade of red.
Ann Powell, a plant biochemist at the University of California, Davis, found that the gene that is inactivated by that mutation plays a big part in producing the sugar and aromas of a tomato.
As the New York Times explains, it was some 70 years ago that breeders discovered the gene mutation that ripened tomatoes uniformly into the desired scarlet. Breeders have widely adopted the uniform ripening mutation as consumers prefer entirely red tomatoes, rather than those with a bit of green, yellow or white at the stem end.
But until Powell’s research, they didn’t realize that the gene mutation that makes tomatoes uniformly red disabled genes involved in ripening. Some of those genes are ones that lead to a fruit producing some of its own sugar, rather than getting it from its leafs; other genes “increase the amount of carotenoids, which give tomatoes a full red color and, it is thought, are involved in flavor.”
Using genetic engineering, Powell and her colleagues turned on the disabled genes while keeping the universal ripening trait. The result was tomatoes that were first uniformly dark green and then red and that had 20 percent more sugar and 20 to 30 percent more carotenoids when ripe.
As the Department of Agriculture does not allow experimental produce to be eaten, Powell could not determine how sweet the tomatoes actually were. Consumers will not get a chance either, as producers are understandably wary of offering genetically modified produce. If you are looking for a sweet tomato, Powell’s research adds to the argument for seeking out heirloom tomatoes that do not have the uniform ripening mutation; wild species also lack it.
The tale of how the tomato lost its taste is a sort of parable about on a number of levels. It is a lesson about how consumers’ demand for produce that looks pretty can have quite unintended consequences — produce without any taste. Plus, it is a reminder that some, if not many, things are quite fine the way nature made them and that we ought to be a bit more wary in our “improvements.”
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Photo of freshly picked tomatos too "imperfect" for the supermarket (even if they taste good) by annethelibrarian