Building a Better Tomato By: Micayla Kinder

For Research Assistant Professor Denise Tieman, there’s nothing better than a flavorful ripe tomato.

Sadly, tomatoes with good flavor have become increasingly harder to find according to Tieman. Research shows that the quality of flavor in tomatoes has diminished over time due to farmers being focused on size, yield and resistance, Tieman said.

The Klee Lab at the University of Florida has been leading the way in research initiatives to change this and make flavor a priority again. The lab is run by Horticultural Sciences Department Professor Harry Klee, who along with his colleagues have taken up the challenge of building a better tomato.

Tieman has worked in the Klee Lab for over 20 years and spoke about the significant progress the lab has made in recent years.

Denise Tieman, Research Assistant Professor

“Our focus has been on tomato flavor, which encompasses a lot of things,” Tieman said. “We started out just trying to figure out what makes a tomato taste good. We then defined what makes the best tasting tomato and what components we needed to change to breed modern tomatoes to taste like the old-fashioned tomatoes that everybody likes.”

Klee and his colleagues sequenced genomes of nearly 400 varieties of tomatoes then to find out which tomato flavors were most popular, the lab orchestrated taste panels with the food science department. At these panels people would taste a variety of tomatoes and rate them. The lab looked at these ratings and used statistics to pinpoint what the formula would be for the best tasting tomato, Tieman said.

“It took us about 15 years to get to this point,” she said. “There had been work done previously on tomato flavor but nothing to this scale with so many different varieties. Our goal is to keep all these properties that are important, like yield, disease resistance and shelf life, but add the flavor back in.”

The lab has now released several tomato seed varieties that are being sold to big seed companies. The tomato seed varieties are also available to the public and are delivered to individuals who donate to the Tomato Research Fund. Donations can be made at: www.uff.ufl.edu/give-now/?fund_id=011545.

“It’s been great for us to get the seeds out there to different people because we can see how they perform in different environments all over the world,” Tieman said. “People have given us great feedback.”

Tieman attributes much of the lab’s progress to the time and hard work put in by the students who work in the lab.

“We couldn’t do this work without them because we harvest huge amounts of tomatoes and process them in a short time,” Tieman said. “They are essential to this program.”

Students who work in the lab spend hours planting and harvesting tomato as well as extracting DNA from the plants and running tests. Shannon Ash and Leila Wolf are two undergraduate students who are working in the Klee Lab this summer.

Shannon Ash & Leila Wolf

“I’ve really loved working in the lab and getting to be involved in these complex processes,” Wolf said. “We’ve been busy because summer is the biggest season and we have plants growing in both the fields and in the greenhouses.”

The lab uses greenhouses, growth chambers and fields to plant, harvest and run tests on their tomatoes and both Wolf and Ash stated that they love learning on the job.

“The best part of this job has been expanding my pallet in the different acids and sugars of tomatoes alone and learning about all the different flavors of the fruit,” Ash said. “It’s rewarding to know there’s so many out there I can try. Taking home tomatoes is also a plus.”

Both students agreed that there are misconceptions about food science and hope that the public will continue to become more informed about the many benefits of food science research.

“The public seems to have this idea that genetically modified food is awful but it’s really not,” Ash said. “It’s just specific genes that were pulled out of the plant to make it grow better, which allows it to produce more yield. It’s not bad for your health at all.”

Rather than being harmful to people’s health, the work being done to improve flavor in tomatoes and other foods will help make the world a healthier and happier place, Tieman said.

“I think everybody would like their fruits and vegetables to taste better. If they did, people would eat more and be healthier,” Tieman said. “Our goal is to make people eat more tomatoes and vegetables, and want to eat more.”

For more information on the research being done in the Klee Lab visit http://old-hos.ifas.ufl.edu/kleeweb/.

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