The flavourless, hard and occasionally crunchy texture of mass-produced tomatoes has for years dictated that, if you wanted flavour, you really had to grow them yourself. Well, these days might be coming to an end thanks to the work of Florida University professor and researcher, Harry Klee.
Professor Klee’s research focuses on the science behind fruit flavour, which is then used to inform the breeding of new commercial varieties with improved taste.
His research has already identified the mechanisms behind what makes a tomato taste great, and his lab has released two new cultivars of tomato that have come out of his extensive trails and breeding programs in recent years. While he’s still in discussion with seed companies about mass-distributing seeds to growers and backyard vegetable gardeners, packets of seed are available on the university’s website for anyone to trial.
So, how did he manage it when other breeders haven’t?
He scienced the hell out of tomatoes, looking at the unique combination of sugars, acids and volatile compounds in particular, that make truly delicious tomatoes. There are several hundred different volatile compounds in tomatoes, of which only about 15 – 20 are detected by our tastebuds.
Professor Klee and his team identified these important volatile compounds behind the ‘flavour’ of a tomato and it’s all thanks to a process called oxidative cleavage, specifically of carotenoids in the fruit. Oxidative cleavage, without going into too much detail, is a chemical reaction in which carbon-carbon or carbon-hydrogen bonds are broken (cleaved) and carbon-oxygen bonds are formed instead, known in chemistry as oxidation.
What makes Professor Klee’s research so groundbreaking is that he has identified two carotenoid cleavage dioxygenases (CCDs) that react with a wide range of carotenoids in tomatoes. The result of these reactions is the production of large amounts of volatile compounds, which are critical in giving tomatoes their flavour.
The results are the new tomato cultivars ‘Garden Gem’ and ‘Garden Treasure’, varieties that will produce yields as good as current mass-produced tomatoes but with a vastly improved flavour.
Professor Klee’s research has seen him trial pretty much every heirloom tomato there is and despite some of their genes providing the favours for his new varieties, he’s not a great fan of them in general. Heirlooms don’t produce as much fruit and are often more susceptible to pests and diseases than vigorous hybrid varieties. His new hybrids combine the prolific quality and long shelf life of commercial varieties with the flavour of heirlooms for the first time.
His research is ongoing and he hopes to breed more varieties to put the flavour back into the supermarket tomato.
You can explore the topic more on his lab’s website.