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The tomato decoded: holds more genes than humans

The tomato has been decoded with hopes of breeding better, tastier fruits.
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Tomatoes are displayed at the Australian booth of the so-called Green Week (Gruene Woche) Agriculture and food Fair in Berlin on January 20, 2012. (Odd Andersen /AFP/Getty Images)

The tomato has always been a complex fruit. Or is it a vegetable? Either way. Tomato, tomahto, right? 

The tomato, which is considered a fruit by botanists and a vegetable to the US government, has been demystified by a consortium of plant geneticists from 14 countries who spent nine years decoding the tomato genome with the hopes of breeding better, tastier fruits. 

Specifically, the scientists sequenced the genomes of both Heinz 1706, a variety used to make ketchup, and the tomato’s closest wild relative, Solanum pimpinellifolium, which is grown in Peru, according to The New York Times. 

The researchers reported that tomatoes possess some 35,000 genes arranged on 12 chromosomes. "For any characteristic of the tomato, whether it's taste, natural pest resistance or nutritional content, we've captured virtually all those genes," James Giovannoni, a scientist at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, told Phys.org. 

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In their research article published in Nature, the research group explained that the tomato genome sequence will provide insights into fleshy fruit evolution. This information will allow researchers to move at a quicker pace in understanding fruit genetics and plant breeders to produce new varieties with specific desired characteristics.

"Tomato genetics underlies the potential for improved taste every home gardener knows and every supermarket shopper desires and the genome sequence will help solve this and many other issues in tomato production and quality," Giovannoni said.

Professor Seymour and his colleagues told the BCC that the successful deciphering of the tomato genome will have a major impact on a global industry worth between $30bn and $40bn annually.

"Now that we have the genome it will be possible to actually target the genes that control flavor separately from those that control shelf life. So it should be possible in the very near future to have tomatoes that last a long time but develop a very dark red color, are full of phyto chemicals and are much more tasty," Seymour said. 

The group also stressed that this research will in fact help the environment. It will not only lead to breeding fruit that requires less pesticides, but it will also lead to less genetically modified foods, and help to breed new fruits the old fashioned way. 

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