Plant researchers have a new tool kit to help them build a better tomato.
The genomes of the domesticated tomato and a related wild tomatoes have been sequenced by a team of researchers from the U.S. and a dozen other countries.
Authors of the research said the findings could help plant geneticists develop transgenic varieties of tomatoes or speed the progress of traditional tomato breeding to produce fruit with higher yields, increased disease resistance, more climate tolerance, new colorings and more enticing aromas.
Seeking to improve the nation’s $2 billion tomato crop, the Tomato Genomics Consortium directed the research effort, supported in the U.S. by the National Science Foundation and the USDA’s Agriculture Research Services. All of the work of the project will be publicly available.
“There has got to be at least a couple hundred of U.S. labs interested in this,” said Bruce Roe, George L. Cross Research Professor Emeritus in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma.
Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, but tomatoes have twelve chromosomes, Roe said. However, he said there are twice as many genes in tomatoes as in humans.
“There is a little under 20,000 genes in humans and a little under 40,000 genes in tomatoes,” Roe said.
He said the tomato must have more genes to help it produce chemicals to help it thrive and survive. While humans can climb a tree to escape danger, a tomato plant must have mechanisms to help protect it from over watering, under watering, fungus and other environmental stresses.
“For me, sequencing tomato was very very important because the tomato plant represents a model for a whole group of other plants,” Roe said.
Potato is a member of the same family as the tomato, as is the pepper plant.
Roe said one of the first transgenic plants were tomato plants developed in California. Research then developed cold resistant tomato plants by putting in a gene from an arctic fish that allowed the tomatoes one degree more of cold tolerance.
The Consortium includes U.S. partners, including Cornell University’s Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Colorado State University and the University of Arizona at Tucson. Members of the international staff were from Korea, China, the United Kingdom, India, the Netherlands, France, Japan, Spain, Italy, Israel, Belgium, Germany and Argentina.
The consortium has essentially completed its work, but Roe said there are still parts of the tomato genome sequence that have gaps. “We have funding for another two years to try to complete the sequence,” he said.