A research project headed by an Ohio State University scientist could change the shape of the fresh produce industry — literally.

Esther van der Knaap, a geneticist in Ohio State’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center’s Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, and colleagues at Ohio State, Cornell University and other American and Japanese schools and research institutes recently received a $3.8 million grant to study the molecular mechanisms that regulate fruit shape.

The four-year grant, from the National Science Foundation, will allow van der Knaap and others to build on her pioneering work cloning a gene, called SUN, that plays a significant role in determining the elongation of different tomato varieties.

Learning more about the genetics behind tomato morphology also will educate researchers about how other fruits and vegetables get their shapes, van der Knaap said.

While the research is many years away from completion, the potential benefits for growers looking to differentiate their products from others in the market are great, van der Knaap said.

“The grape tomato is a good example of how a new shape overtook a fresh market segment,” she said. “The shape is distinctly different from any other tomato, and this helped consumers recognize the new variety.”

In addition, she said, the research into how fruit shape is determined could lead to other discoveries related to fruit development, promising more benefits to the fresh produce industry.

“If we could manipulate fruit development better, this could lead to higher yields and better fruit set under adverse conditions,” she said.