News / Science & Technology

Scientists Crack Tomato's Genetic Code

The tomato is the latest important food crop to yield its genetic secrets (Scott Bauer/USDA)
The tomato is the latest important food crop to yield its genetic secrets (Scott Bauer/USDA)
Scientists have unraveled the entire genetic code of the tomato, the world’s second-most valuable vegetable after the potato.  

From pasta sauce to curry, this South American transplant has found itself at home in cuisines around the world. It is the latest important food crop to yield its genetic secrets, published in Nature.

This breakthrough provides a glimpse at how the genetic revolution is helping keep our favorite foods on the table.

Global effort

As befits this international vegetable, more than 300 scientists from 14 countries worked on the eight-year project.

Having a genetic map will provide a valuable starting point for breeders looking to make a better, hardier, more nutritious or simply tastier tomato.  

“This will be facilitated now by the fact that we now know not only what genes are there, but their order,” says Giovanni Giuliano with the Tomato Genome Consortium and a researcher at the Italian national energy agency, which also does crop breeding.

Though it is the first tomato to have its DNA sequence decoded, Giuliano says there's nothing particularly special about the variety chosen for the project, known simply as Heinz 1706.

“It so happens that the day the person that made the first DNA library to be sequenced, they had Heinz 1706 seeds, and they started from that one. It is as simple as that.”

But it was not so simple to create this tomato -- or any new crop variety.

Ketchup story

Heinz, a U.S. food company, is famous for its tomato ketchup. It's the essential condiment for American staples like hot dogs and hamburgers.

But to make Heinz ketchup, not just any tomato will do.

Until the late 1960s, the tomatoes the company used had a nasty habit of cracking on the vine after a heavy rain. That can ruin the tomato.

So, “Heinz had set about trying to put together a variety of tomatoes that would resist that cracking,” says company research manager, Rich Ozminkowski.

It meant years of trial and error, mating different varieties, finding offspring that looked promising, mating those offspring with other varieties, and so on.

Complex traits

And it was not enough for the offspring to just resist cracking.  Ozminkowski says the perfect ketchup tomato needs a whole list of other traits, too.

“Traits like sugars and, for Heinz, viscosity, or the juice thickness, and the redness of the tomatoes are all very critical traits for us," he says. "Those are all controlled by a lot of different genes within a tomato naturally.”

On top of all that, it had to be disease-resistant and easy to harvest mechanically.

Commercialized around 1967, Heinz 1706 fit the bill. Ozminkowski says creating that tomato would have been much easier if they had a genetic map to go by.

“The tools available back when 1706 was developed, it was all very, very conventional breeding." Breeders had to grow thousands of tomato plants and go looking for specific traits. "There were no genetic tools," he says. "You could not look at (DNA) sequences.  You could not do comparisons. And that is what makes the genomic project and the technologies that have spun off of that so interesting.”

Less guesswork

Genome sequencing is such a powerful tool for breeders of all kinds of crops because it takes away much of the guesswork, says Heinz’s Rich Ozminkowski.

“By having the genome information, we can pick out those tomato plants that have more of those genes” for sweetness, redness, viscous juice, or whatever breeders are looking for.

And it’s not just about making better ketchup.  Climate change will demand that many crops adjust to new conditions. Ozminkowski says researchers are already using the new genetic tools to help fight emerging plant diseases.

“This is going to give us even more [tools]," he says. That's important, he adds, "because there are new diseases that are becoming problems within California and around the world.”

So however you enjoy your tomatoes, or whatever you are eating, new genetic breakthroughs are helping keep them on your table for years to come.

You May Like

Taliban's New Leader Says Jihad Will Continue

Top US Afghan diplomat also meets with Pakistani, Afghan officials following news of Mullah Omar's death More

Video US Landmark Pushes Endangered Species

People gathered in streets, on rooftops in Manhattan to see image highlights that covered 33 floors of Empire State Building More

World’s Widest Suspension Bridge Being Built Over Bosphorus

Once built, Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge will span 2 kilometers with about 1.5 kilometers over water, and will be longest suspension bridge in world carrying rail system More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missionsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
July 30, 2015 8:59 PM
Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.

VOA Blogs