Tomatoes, the disarmingly jolly cousins of the nightshade family, finally yielded the last of their secrets to us today, as scientists announced they had successfully decoded the tomato genome — marking the end of a nine-year undertaking.
A weird fact, courtesy of The New York Times, is that tomatoes possess 31,760 genes—about 7,000 more than humans—meaning they are inherently superior to us and not to be trusted or left to congregate in groups.
On a happier note, scientists say the genome sequencing will likely lead to tastier tomatoes a mere five years down the road.
This is great news for anyone who has always been curious about tomatoes, but wanted to wait until all the bugs had been worked out before diving in.
According to Dr. Jim Giovannoni, one of the 300 plant geneticists from 14 countries who worked on the project (TOMATOES: more trouble than they're worth?), plant breeders will be able to use the information about tomato DNA to breed tomatoes for characteristics like taste and quality in addition to factors like extended shelf life (for which they already select, often at the detriment to flavor).
As Giovannoni's co-author Professor Graham Seymour explained to The BBC, one reason today's tomatoes last so long in the grocery store is that they have been bred to ripen extra slowly, via the introduction of non-ripening mutant genes. Unfortunately, when you slow down ripening, you also…slow down ripening.
"[This] has been quite a blunt instrument, because when you slow ripening down you also slow down those other processes like flavour development and colour development."
Seymour says that the genome will make it possible to target the genes that control flavor separately from those that control shelf life, meaning that the tomatoes of tomorrow will not only live forever, as tomatoes already do; they will also be deep red and extra flavorful.
The authors also claim the new DNA information could reduce the need for pesticides.