August 9, 2012 § 4 Comments

Well so OK, not quite cardboard, that distinction belonging to All Bran cereal.  But you know what I mean.  Beautiful, red, evenly round but bland.  Conduct a taste test of one such against one from your closest farmer’s market.  In particular, pick a variety like Cherokee Purple, which certainly has not gone through hybridization hell recently.

Now there is a paper from Ann Powell at the University of California, Davis, arguably the Mecca of agricultural research (sorry N C State), and collaborators at Cornell and elsewhere.  The original paper, in the journal Science (June 29, 2012 issue), is tough going for non scientists, but reasonably approachable. I am directing you to a popular story describing the paper, which is eminently readable and has the relevant facts.

The essence of the work is that the industry devised the tomato for uniform ripening behavior.  They found a mutation in the 1920’s that caused this trait and simply selected for it.  This allowed the farmer to harvest evenly ripened fruit for transport to market.  The fruit also ripened to an even red color.  They are uniformly light green.  Your garden tomatoes will have variations in color from beginning to end, shades of light and dark green to start.  The aforementioned Cherokee Purple is particularly so, and the flesh is a gorgeous purple.  Of course if you prefer plain vanilla red (is that oxymoronic or what?), this is not the one for you.  Go for German Johnson or Brandywine (shown in the image). Names with character, in contrast to Big Boy, Early Girl; not picking on Burpee, but hey, I did not name them, they did.

But the genetic manipulation to obtain this trait inadvertently suppressed sugar.  The finally ripened fruit was then compromised on taste and flavor.   What made this discovery possible was identification of the gene responsible for the uniform ripening.  The investigators then were able to locate the position on the chromosome and thence deduce that the sugar producing protein was absent.

This research was uniquely possible because of an international effort to sequence the tomato genome.  Took them nine years and success was announced earlier this year.  The tomato genome?  Seriously?  Apparently this was driven in part because the tomato belongs to a family of other vegetables.  Oddly enough it has 92 percent of genes in common with the potato.  The potato decided to go in the direction of starch in tubers.  Tomatoes opted for the above ground show of sugar and color.  Until we messed with nature, that is.  Others such as eggplant are country cousins.

So is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable?  Botanists see it as a fruit.  Most of us are likely divided.  Although what we just divulged here regarding sugar content might change the vote of some.  But the Supreme Court has decided this for us.  And you thought they only worried about hanging chads and curbing Arizonian sheriffs.  Back in 1893 the Nix family disputed import duties on tomatoes from the West Indies on the argument that tomatoes were a fruit, not a vegetable.  They lost.  So now it is law.

While humans have 23 chromosomes, tomatoes have only 12.  Interestingly, though they have about 32000 genes to our 24000.  Some believe the additional complexity is because they have to defend against the environment while remaining static.  We can escape on feet.

So, the future likely holds tasty tomatoes that do not sacrifice shelf life.  If genetically modified, this ought to be straightforward.  If they try to go about it through conventional breeding techniques, could take longer.  In India, a genetically modified version of a vegetable staple the eggplant was developed for better yields and disease resistance.  A vociferous minority essentially squelched that.  In the US almost all our corn and soy bean are genetically modified but most are not aware.  If a labeling push goes through as law, opinion could change.  Meanwhile, I grow my own Cherokee Purple and Sun Gold.

Vikram Rao



  • Mark Bahner says:


    I invested in Calgene in the 1980s, because of their Flavr Savr genetically modified tomato. Like most of investments, it did not go well.

  • Jim Siedow says:


    There are a couple of things to note. The similarity to potato shouldn’t surprise anyone, they are both not only in the same Family but also the same Genus, Solanum.

    Additionally and while not necessarily as true today in the midst of the locavore and fresh fruits/veggie craze, many taste tests in years past have clearly shown consumers would always go first with what they thought a ripe tomato should look like and that would be red. Strange colored tomatoes would lose out every time when consumers were asked to chose. Along those lines, I am told that there are some varieties of orange in Florida that win blind taste tests hands down every time but they are green in the ripened state and consumers are not yet ready to buy a green orange. It’s a bit of what consumers say they want in a product and what determinants they actually use when buying said product.

    I need to go read the article now that I have the short version.

    Thanks for sending.

    • rtecrtp says:

      Jim: Exactly. So, because of those consumer preferences the industry may have no choice but to go for genetically modified (GM) versions with the color, shape and uniform ripening, and yet with good taste.

      Then we will see whether the public is happy with that. It is one thing to have GM corn in your cereal, but a little higher bar for GM fruit and vegetables. A GM salmon is not far away, I am told.

      By the way, a green orange variety is widely consumed in India. It has a unique name (Musambi in Hindi) to distinguish from oranges. I don’t recollect whether it cost more, less or the same, likely less. Also, I think the purists consider it a sweet lime. It peels more like a Valencia than a Navel.

      Vikram Rao

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