Return of The Flavr Savr Tomato

Gene Found to Make Fresher Tomatoes

.c The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Scientists say they have figured out a way to make
tomatoes taste fresher and last longer by tinkering with a gene that
controls ripening.

The researchers, who report their findings in Friday's issue of the
journal Science, believe the procedure may also work with strawberries,
bananas, bell peppers, melons and other produce.

``For understanding tomato ripening and eventually taste, this could be
the Holy Grail,'' said Jim Giovannoni, an Agriculture Department
scientist who led the research.

Gardeners know that tomatoes that ripen on the vine are much tastier
than the tomatoes sold in supermarkets. That's because farm-grown
tomatoes have to be picked before they ripen and develop their flavor.
To turn them red and restart their ripening, tomatoes are treated with
ethylene gas, a natural ripening agent in fruit.

Giovannoni's team of scientists turned off the ripening gene in the
tomato plant, which would allow farmers to leave the tomatoes on the
vine for several days longer. The tomato would still be firm enough for
shipping across the country.

The tomatoes also would be healthier, because vine-ripened tomatoes have
higher levels of lycopene, an antioxidant that has been linked to lower
rates of prostate and other cancers.

This isn't the first time that scientists have genetically engineered a
tomato to last longer.

The Flavr Savr tomato, which was developed through modification of a
gene that was thought to cause softening, was approved for sale in 1994
but ran into production and shipping problems and was off the market by
1997. The tomatoes were so delicate they were difficult to transport
without damage.

The Flavr Savr tomatoes didn't taste that good because of the variety
from which they were developed, said Chris Watkins, a horticulture
professor at Cornell University. ``There was very little flavor to
save,'' he said.

Some biotech companies also are doing private research into developing
fresher-tasting produce, said Val Giddings, an agricultural specialist
with the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

``Ripening is a complex pathway. There are any number of interventions
that could have an impact,'' Giddings said.

In the early 1960s, a Cornell scientist discovered how to extend the
shelf life of tomatoes by crossing a plant that had a defective ripening
gene with plants that were normal.

Giovannoni's team identified two genes, one that regulates ripening and
another that controls floral development.

The research could speed the breeding of improved varieties of tomatoes,
but they are years away from reaching supermarkets. New biotech crops
must be reviewed by USDA and other federal agencies.

Scientists from the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research in
Ithaca, N.Y., Texas A&M University and Jeallots Hill Research Station in
Britain also participated in the research.


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