There is a general consensus that the insipidity of the vegetables spreads like an oil stain. Especially that of the fruit of the tomato plant (Solanum lycopersicum), a plant that, according to what has been discovered after sequencing its genome, has survived the great extinctions -including the one that killed the dinosaurs and 75% of the species on the planet- and that, now, is overcome by the lack of flavor. There was a time when, taking them to our mouths, the tomatoes, fleshy and velvety, stimulated each and every one of our taste buds , delighting us with a slightly acid taste, a little sweet, a little umami… and its nuances Floral and green notes.
Greater resistance, less flavor
How is this radical change explained? “For starters, we have not maintained good genetics in our tomatoes,” explains Antonio Granell, a researcher at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology of Primo Yúfera Plants – a mixed center of the CSIC and the Polytechnic University of Valencia. Its improvement has focused on increasing the productivity of the plant, confer resistance to diseases and even allow it to be watered with salt water and, of course, delay maturation so that the fruit does not spoil while being taken to the supermarket. Excellent. If it were not for that in the way the producers have neglected their palate. Granell, however, apologizes. “It has not been done with bad intention: it’s just that the improver of this vegetable it is usually handled with a few characters that are easy to evaluate and with relatively simple genetics. “But taste is a complex character that depends on many compounds and associated genes, until recently unknown.
“When we incorporate genes of resistance of wild species related to the tomato through crosses, selection, and then more backcrosses, it is inevitable to keep a region of the wild genome that affects -and much- the flavor, although until recently we ignored it”, clarifies Granell. To make matters worse, most modern varieties on the market are hybrid and carry a version of the gene rin- el long-lived, whose purpose is to delay maturation and allow the fruits stay hard longer. It only has one drawback, and that is that it does so at the cost of slowing down the development of the full flavor typical of a good tomato.
To this is added another blunder: the tomatoes are often picked from the mature green maturity stage to increase their shelf life, when “if they left the plant in a pinton (orange) or advanced pinton stage it would significantly improve the flavor”, explains Granell and, on top of that, the refrigeration of the product during transportation also hinders the development of the compounds that give the tomato specific flavor.
In search of the perfect gene
So, what can science do to make tomatoes taste the same as before? So far, experts have already made the tab to the molecules that contribute to good taste and have identified two sugars, two organic acids and a score of volatile compounds – of the more than four hundred found in the fruit– as responsible for the typical taste of tomato What comes next seems obvious: everything must be done to retain the tasty genes. Granell and his colleagues have already set to work and are developing genetic markers that breeders could use to select those specimens that, after crossings, not only carry the disease resistance and productivity genes, but also the versions of the superior taste genes.