A bunch of rite tomatoes on a bush.

Can tomato breeders make tomatoes tasty again?

Image: Penny Greb, USDA ARS

They’re bright red, a bit crunchy, and they don’t really taste like much. The standard tomatoes you can buy in a supermarket are a bit boring to eat. But if you’ve ever grown tomatoes yourself, you’ll know how sweet and full of flavour they can be. So what’s happened to the humble tomato?

It’s not just your imagination. For years, supermarket tomatoes have been getting less and less delicious. But now, an international team of scientists is on the case, trying to bring back tasty tomatoes.

The first step is to work out what’s missing in a modern tomato. The team started with a taste-test, asking people to rate different tomato breeds. For instance, they asked people how strong the taste was, and how much they liked it. Then the team looked at the chemicals inside the tomatoes, and found 29 that were present in strong-flavoured, likeable tomatoes.

So why do only some tomatoes have the tastiest chemicals? The team looked to genetics for help. They surveyed the entire genome of several varieties of tomatoes, including supermarket, home-grown and wild versions. Then they compared the genes of each plant with the chemicals found in the fruits.

With this information, the team found which areas of the genome were important to produce each tasty chemical. They also found one reason why supermarket tomatoes don’t taste as good. There were five genetic sequences controlling the sugar content of tomatoes. But those five areas were also linked to the size of the tomatoes – and big tomato genes also turn out to be bland tomato genes.

All this research leads to the third and hardest stage. With all this new information, can tomato breeders make tomatoes tasty again? In a few years’ time, the answer may well be in your salad!

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