How farmers and scientists strive for more flavor

"Flavor is a re-emerging trend, without a doubt," says Franco Fubini, founder of fruit and vegetable supplier Natoora. You might be surprised that flavor ever went out of fashion. But finding truly tasty fruit and vegetable varieties can be difficult. 

Prof Harry Klee of Florida University's horticultural sciences department is working to understand the chemical and genetic make-up of fruit and vegetable flavors – focusing on the tomato. "The tomato has been a long-term model system for fruit development. It has a short generation time, great genetic resources, and [is] the most economically important fruit crop worldwide. "It was only the second plant species to get a complete genome sequence – a huge help in studying the genetics of an organism." Plant flavor is a complex phenomenon. In the case of a tomato, it stems from the interaction of sugars, acids and over a dozen volatile compounds derived from amino acids, fatty acids and carotenoids.
Prof Klee wants to identify the genes controlling the synthesis of the flavor volatiles, and using this to produce a better-tasting tomato.
"It's not quite at the stage where we have completed assembling the superior flavor traits into a single line, but we expect to be there in another year or so," he says. It is possible to use genetic modification (GM) to improve the flavor by importing genes from other species, but in much of the world produce created this way is banned.

However, other forms of genetic manipulation are more widely accepted. US firm Pairwise is working on new fruit and vegetable varieties by using CRISPR – gene-editing technology licensed from Harvard, the Broad Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Rather than taking genes from other species, like GM, CRISPR involves tweaking existing genes within the plant by cutting and splicing.

Pairwise's first product, expected in a year or two, will be a seedless blackberry it says will have a more consistent taste than traditional varieties. It is also working on a stoneless cherry. All this could be done through traditional breeding techniques, but as fruit trees take years to mature it would be a very long-term project.

"Some of the fruits we're interested in, like cherries where we want a pitless cherry, theoretically you could do it with breeding but it would take 100-150 years," says Mr. Baker. "The products we want to make and we think consumers want are not achievable in our lifetimes with conventional breeding, it's just too slow."

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