The world produces some 800 billion tomatoes each year — but how many of them are worth eating? Thousands of years of breeding have produced a fruit that often suits farmers and sellers more than consumers. Vines now grow in an orderly fashion, and produce lots of tomatoes that stay in place until they are harvested and are firm enough to be shipped long distances. But, in too many cases, studies have confirmed that flavour and nutrition have got lost somewhere along the way.
Plant scientists are on the case. Recently, three papers from research groups around the world detail attempts to make a new type of super-tomato: one that does not sacrifice taste for convenience. To do this, the researchers used CRISPR–Cas9 gene editing, which allowed them to modify specific genes in wild relatives of tomatoes. The result — according to a scientist who has tasted one of the fruits — is an “aromatic” tomato that could re-energize taste buds.
The studies are a demonstration of the fruits of decades of painstaking plant-genetics research: a cupboard full of genes with known effects, that can each be adjusted to turn an unruly wild plant into a valuable domesticated one. The work serves as a reminder of the value of basic research into plant growth and development. And it shows how other useful traits could be introduced in other crops.