Tomatoes tasted much better 100 years ago. Can their flavor be restored?

This, after decades of declining taste quality as farmers sought to grow ever larger, sturdier tomatoes that would look good and survive well on supermarket shelves, sacrificing flavor in the process.

University of Florida researcher Harry Klee led an worldwide team of scientists that has mapped those key flavor components, down to the genomic level.

To try to bring the taste of bland commercial tomatoes closer to that of their more appetizing ancestors, Klee and an worldwide team of horticultural researchers set out to decode exactly what has changed in the tomato genome. In exchange for a donation of $10 or more, Klee's laboratory will send a packet of seeds. They're using mostly natural breeding methods, not genetic modification technology.

The tomatoes were thus analyzed at the genetic level by the horticulturists of today.

"Now that all of us in the community know the genes that are relevant for emphasizing flavor, there is no reason we shouldn't be able to make great tomatoes", said Ann Powell, a recently retired tomato researcher at UC Davis, who was not involved in the work.

"Whole-genome sequencing and a genome-wide association study permitted identification of genetic loci that affect most of the target flavor chemicals, including sugars, acids, and volatiles", the researchers wrote in their study.

"The real excitement of food is what you smell", Tieman said. According to Klee, new flavorful tomato varieties will likely take 3-4 years to produce. Then about 100 of the varietals were given to 70 to 100 taste testers who rated them on intensity of flavor, sweetness and other attributes.

Scientists were able to pinpoint locations of the good alleles in the tomato genome. Over the next few years, the scientists assembled dozens of consumer panels and conducted taste tests with 101 university-grown tomato varieties, including both heirlooms and commercially grown fruits, recording which ones people liked most. This type of research is too expensive and time-consuming for tomato growers, so the study is something of a gift to the industry. "I don't want people to not eat a great-tasting tomato because they're scared of it". They revealed the genes that produce that specific chemical compounds. "In Japan they like them super sweet, and in parts of Europe they like them with that green taste". These traits helped growers sell their crops for more money, but growers neglected genes responsible for taste, Klee says, and many of these were lost or tamped down over thousands of generations. Also, his lab's previous work has shown that tomatoes stop creating those all-important aroma-compounds when they are chilled.

"We're just fixing what has been damaged over the last half century to push them back to where they were a century ago, taste-wise. You know, I'm kind of exhausted of them", he said.

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