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Researchers Boost Tomato Production to a New Maximum

Nov 03, 2014 04:43 PM EST
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Here's some great news for pizza and pasta lovers everywhere. Researchers have discovered a new set of gene variations that can boost fruit production in the tomato plant by as much as 100 percent, raising that maximum crop output ceiling for the world.

And while this may mean that we won't be running out of mom's home cooked sauce any time soon, some people may be worried that this also means that experts will be playing "mad scientists" with all that's good and natural in the world.

But not to worry. According to a study recently published in the journal Nature Genetics, the genetic toolkit developed is based around variations of the tomato's natural properties - that is, these are changes that could naturally occur in the tomato plant if given enough time under the right conditions.

Zachary Lippman, a scientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, explained that attention to beneficial traits in the tomato plant - selected for in countless generations of plant breeding - is just not enough anymore.

"Traditionally, plant breeders have relied on natural variation in plant genes to increase yield, but yield gains are plateauing," Lippman said in a statement.

"There is an immediate need to find new ways for plant breeders to produce more food," he added, explaining how, with world populations growing, about one person in eight alive today don't receive adequate nourishment.

According to the study, Lippman and his colleagues turned away from genes that affect the properties of a tomato to look at the production of the fruit itself. Plants traditionally have a delicate balance between leaf and fruit production, in which energy goes to the production of leaves so the little power-plants can then redistribute new energy to the formation of flowers and fruits. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Zachary Lippman/ Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory) On the far left is the average yield from a plant that grows standard canning tomatoes. The next three piles were produced by plants with newly identified mutations.

Past studies have suggested that despite centuries of crop domestication, this balance has still not been perfected. That's what Lippman and his team set out to correct.

They found that a series of genetic mutations can influence the production of two opposing hormones called florigen and anti-florigen that control this essential balance.

"We mixed and matched all of the mutations, and we were able to produce plants with a broad range of architectures," the researcher explained. "Together, our collection of mutations forms a powerful toolkit for breeders to pinpoint a new optimum in flowering and architecture that can achieve previously unattainable yield gains."

"We've tested this in multiple genetic backgrounds, in multiple years, and in multiple environments, and the toolkit always provides a new maximum yield," Lippman added, explaining that this brings us one step closer to shattering fears of running out of food in the near-future.

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