In their quest for a tastier tomato, University of Florida scientists are finding traits they believe will tempt consumers with flavor that triggers their senses even more, making progress on improving the UF-developed Tasti-Lee tomato with improved flavor and aroma.

“Modern tomato cultivars typically have poor flavor as compared to heirloom varieties, but breeding for tomato flavor is difficult due to the complexity of the flavor trait,” said Denise Tieman, a research assistant professor of horticultural sciences at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Cracking the flavor code

To start solving this puzzle, Tieman and her UF/IFAS colleagues identified portions of tomato chromosomes that correlate with higher levels of important flavor compounds. They did this by sequencing the DNA of 400 tomato varieties, both heirloom and modern.

Tomato flavor comes from interactions between sugars, acids and aroma volatiles, Tieman said.

With the new, albeit preliminary, research findings, “We can now use traditional breeding methods to replace the better version of these regions in a modern tomato variety,” Tieman said.

Anyone who knows molecular breeding can use this information to breed for better flavor.

“We are using it to add flavor in some Florida tomato varieties,” Tieman said. “Several seed companies have expressed interest in this research.”

Tieman will present the lab’s preliminary findings at the annual UF/IFAS Florida Tomato Institute on Sept. 4 in Naples, Fla.

UF/IFAS researchers developed and released Tasti-Lee in 2006, and with it, they came up with a tomato with a fresh-from-the-garden flavor. Not only does it taste good, it’s juicy and red.

Out with the bad, in with the good

In her research, Tieman replaces a “bad” version of a gene with a “good” one, resulting in improved flavor. To do this, scientists take flavor traits from an heirloom variety, along with yield, disease resistance and shelf-life from the modern parent. This results in higher levels of desirable flavor compounds in a modern background, Tieman said.

“In doing this, we obtain the best parts of the heirloom parent along with the best parts of the commercial parent,” she said. “Just as a child gets genes from each parent, the tomato will get genes from the heirloom and the commercial parent. We test the DNA of many offspring and choose the plants with the traits we want.”

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