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Decades of overproduction across the world have taken away one of the key aspect of tomatoes – their flavor – and that’s the reason scientists are working on ways to bring back the awesome taste that this vegetable (fruit for some of you) once had.

Tomatoes can be pegged as a modern day consumable that have found itself a strong place in the traditional cuisines of Italy and Latin America. The demand for tomatoes surged in the 1900s owing to which there was a massive boost in their cultivation. Decade after decade of overproduction did manage to cater to the demand, but along the way tomatoes lost their flavor with some variants now tasting like mush.

Scientists took it as a challenge to determine what caused tomatoes to lose their flavor and while there are many reasons, some of them are particularly strong – genetic reason. University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researcher led an international team of scientists to take the issue head on.

Researchers from US, China, Israel and Spain teamed up to identify chemicals that contribute to tomato flavor and published their findings in the journal Science. The team behind the study first set out to determine which of the hundreds of chemicals in a tomato contribute the most to taste. Researchers also tried to find an answer to why have modern tomatoes lost the taste that they once had.

Their investigation revealed that tomatoes that are being cultivated in current times lack sufficient sugars and volatile chemicals that provide them with that awesome flavor. Fifty odd years of overproduction and need to produce more every year took a toll on farmers and this forced the cultivators not to routinely screen for flavor.

Scientists studied what they call “alleles” – the version of the DNA in a tomato gene that give it its specific traits. Researchers identified the locations of the good alleles in the tomato genome and for that purpose they had to carry out a genome-wide association study wherein they mapped genes that control synthesis of all the important chemicals. Once they found them, they use genetic analysis to replace bad alleles in modern tomato varieties with the good alleles.

“We identified the important factors that have been lost and showed how to move them back into the modern types of tomatoes,” said Harry Klee, a UF/IFAS professor of horticultural sciences who lead the team stressing that this technique involves classical genetics, not genetic modification. “We’re just fixing what has been damaged over the last half century to push them back to where they were a century ago, taste-wise. We can make the supermarket tomato taste noticeably better.”

Because breeding takes time, and the scientists are replacing five or more genes, Klee said the genetic traits from his latest study may take about three or four years to produce new tomato varieties.

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