Tomatoes could be reengineered to get tastier and survive droughts and pests now that a Colorado State University team and other scientists have sequenced the vegetable's DNA.
CSU Professor Stephen Stack and several lab members in the Biology Department are part of the Tomato Genome Consortium that includes scientists from 14 nations attempting to establish the tomato sequence which would enhance future research.
The conclusion of a decade of successful work is the subject of a "Nature" journal article in late May.
The sequence reveals the structure and order of about 35,000 genes, knowledge which will be fundamental to improvements in tomatoes, such as taste and storage of fruits, as well as pest and drought resistance.
"We're not making a better tomato, but there are people who will," says Stack, who has probed tomato chromosomes at CSU since 1978. "There are very few organisms that have this kind of sequencing done – you can just about count them on one hand."
The work was anything but a "quick and dirty" shotgun sequencing, he explains. "It's a gold standard sequence," he insists. The work done by Stacks and other U.S. labs involved is supported by the National Science Foundation.
Fresh market tomatoes were worth an estimated $1.3 billion to U.S. growers last year, making it the nation's highest ranked fresh market vegetable in terms of total revenues. Processed and fresh tomatoes together account for $2 billion in annual U.S. sales of a plant considered poisonous by colonial Americans.
Analysis of the tomato sequence indicates that the ancestral genome "triplicated," suddenly about 60 million years ago, close to the Cretaceous Boundary Event that resulted in dinosaur extinction. While most triplicated genes were lost from the tomato over the years, some of the genes survived to control important features of the tomato, such as fruit characteristics like ripening time, firmness and pigmentation.