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Mystery of the Very Red But Tasteless Tomato Solved!

Mystery of the Very Red But Tasteless Tomato Solved!

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

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3:35AM PST on Dec 16, 2012

Thanks for interesting and informative article! Everything homegrown tastes better!

7:29AM PST on Dec 11, 2012

The strawberries you buy in a store are inedible. Every season, I only buy from local growers. There are 2 now near my home. They have also ruined red delicious apples unless you like tasteless, dry, mealy apples. The used genetic engineering to produce perfectly shaped, dark red alomst black apples and now you can't eat them.

7:22AM PST on Dec 11, 2012

Debra V I remember those days too. The mother of my best friend in grade school used to grow tomatoes in the backyard. We would go out with a salt shaker and pick one and eat it right there.

6:42AM PDT on Oct 6, 2012

who cares what these yummy fruits and veggies look like it is what is on the inside that counts!! a lot more folks must start growing their own,...

3:59PM PDT on Oct 3, 2012

Should have mentioned, in case anyone's not aware, that companies like Monsanto have been buying up seed places and the only safe place to buy now is from a specifically heirloom seed place.

3:57PM PDT on Oct 3, 2012

The past few years I've noticed this uniform, tasteless/yucky tomato, with tough or crunchy white matter inside - and no actual organic tomatoes available in the organic market.

Even the garden ones a relative brought me, from some given her by a neighbour, from his garden, were awful, as were some cucumbers from the same source.

I used to love tomatoes and cucumbers, have had to eliminate corn on the cob, as there's never any organic available here - at the rate the GM industry is growing and contaminating things, soon there'll be nothing either safe or tasty to eat...

9:35PM PDT on Jul 19, 2012

Strawberries are tasteless these days. They were better when I was a kid. Now the only ones worth eating are the Hood variety.

7:15AM PDT on Jul 11, 2012

Lontani da OGM......

11:49AM PDT on Jul 10, 2012

In the San Fernando area of Los Angeles on Rinaldi St. there is a farm stand that grows those great tomato's. $15 for a 24lb lug, and I enjoy every bite. On Rinaldi between the 5 and 405 freeways. They have these tomatos from July to the end of Nov. I buy a lug about every month. I've always been a big eater of Tomato's, and I've lived to be healthy 85, others in my family who did not like tomatos are dead. I attribute my health to my diet.

10:58PM PDT on Jul 8, 2012

SHAME ON CARE2. The tomatoes in the photo are heirloom tomatoes, I only find such tomatoes at farmers markets, but now anyone who has read this article and then sees tomatoes like that may equate the appearance with bad tomatoes. SHAME, SHAME, SHAME!!!!

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