Tomato, the second most important vegetable in the world after potatoes, arrived in Europe relatively recently. Hernan Cortes conquered Tenochtitlan in 1521 and it is likely that a member of that expedition was responsible for introducing in Spain the yellow tomatoes that the Aztecs consumed. However, it was only used as an ornament and wasn't used in the kitchen until a century and a half later, as it resembled other poisonous plants from the same family, such as mandrake or the belladonna.
According to an article published this week by researchers from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (USA) in the Molecular Biology and Evolution magazine, this tomato's quest to conquer the world tables began many tens of thousands of years ago on the west coast of South America, in a land where the high peaks of the Andes are separated from the beaches of the Pacific by a just few kilometers.
It all started about 80,000 years ago, in what is now Ecuador, when a small wild fruit (Solanum pimpinellifolium L.) the size of a blueberry reached the size of a cherry tomato. According to the lead author of the study, Ana Caicedo, this variety (S. lycoperiscum L. var.Cerasiforme) was used by the first inhabitants of the region thousands of years ago, and “it had characteristics that were similar to those of a domesticated fruit. "
The first domestication tests of tomatoes that are the basis of the current ones (S. lycopersicum L. var. Lycopersicum) were found in Mexico. “When migrating to the north, tomatoes that were the size of the cherry tomatoes became smaller, possibly because they had to evolve and acquire other characteristics to survive the new environment,” Caicedo stated. These little tomatoes were later used by ancient Americans to select varieties and create the tomatoes that would eventually reach Europe and conquer the world.
In addition to letting us know the evolutionary history of such an important plant, the research of the team led by Caicedo can be useful to improve current tomato crops.
In 2017, a team sequenced the complete genome of 398 tomato varieties, including modern, traditional, and wild varieties, such as the ones there were in South America tens of thousands of years ago. That study identified the genetic basis of the production of 13 chemical compounds associated with flavor that abound in ancestral varieties and that are scarce in the tomatoes found in the supermarket.
After such a long journey, from its origins in the Pacific to being a global success, science wants to help the tomato recover some of its essences.