It's tomato season, and that always makes me happy. The little raised bed on the side of my house is producing so many tomatoes that I'm eating them two or three times per day and giving them to friends, with plenty left over -- including all those smaller and less pretty ones.
The problem with tomatoes is that we have a big glut of glorious vine-ripened fruit during the summer months, but for most of the year we are stuck with hothouse tomatoes that look pretty but taste like styrofoam.
A company called Syngenta is working on issues like that at its biotechnology center in Research Triangle Park. According to a recent feature in the News & Observer (and a much more technical article in Nature), scientists have learned that tomatoes have -- get this -- at least 7,000 more genes than humans do.
Gene sequencing of the "Heinz 1706" variety (that's right, commonly used in ketchup) revealed no less than 31,760 genes. That's a lot of DNA. It doesn't mean we should ask "Are you smarter than a tomato?" -- but it does suggest that tomatoes have a lot of coded information to work with.
As plant geneticists gain more understanding of which genes give different varieties of tomatoes their distinct flavors and other characteristics, they'll be able to develop new strains with more desirable characteristics.
Some purists decry any tampering with nature, but nature constantly tampers with itself through hybridization, genetic mutations, and natural selection. As long as human-induced genetic modifications are designed for good purposes, and increase variety rather than promoting a monoculture that would reduce genetic diversity, I don't think we've harmed the planet.
And if we can develop tomatoes that taste good in the winter, we will have helped the palate.