Thursday, January 23, 2014

Producing Tastier Fruits & Vegetables

Modern Tastes

Healthy Fruits & Veggies: The article notes: “People have been changing plants to suit their purposes for at least 9,000 years. Just about every fruit and vegetable we eat is a domesticated species that we have transformed through generations of artificial selection and breeding: saving seeds only from plants with the most desirable characteristics and deliberately mating one plant with another to create new combinations of traits. In this way our ancestors turned a scrawny grass named teosinte into tall plump-eared corn and molded a single species of wild cabbage into broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kale.”
Credit: Scientific American

An article, by Ferris Jabr, in Scientific American says that researchers are making tastier and healthier fruits and vegetables without using genetic engineering; the article says these are a modern alternative to GMOs, the controversial method of producing produce by manipulating its genes. Michael Mazourek, a graduate student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, is helping to make better produce for humanity.

Jabr writes:
Mazourek belongs to a new generation of plant breeders who combine traditional farming with rapid genetic analysis to create more flavorful, colorful, shapely and nutritious fruits and vegetables. These modern plant breeders are not genetic engineers; in most cases they do not directly manipulate plant DNA in the lab. Rather, they sequence the genomes of many different kinds of plants to build databases that link various versions of genes—known as alleles—to distinct traits. Then, they peek inside juvenile plants to examine the alleles that are already there before choosing which ones to grow in the field and how best to mate one plant with another. In some cases breeders can even analyze the genetic profiles of individual seeds and subsequently select which to sow and which to disregard, saving them a great deal of time and labor.

Plant breeders have, of course, always used the best tools available to them. But in the last 10 years or so they have been able to approach their work in completely new ways in part because genetic sequencing technology is becoming so fast and cheap. “There’s been a radical change in the tools we use,” says Jim Myers of Oregon State University, who has been a plant breeder for more than 20 years and recently created an eggplant-purple tomato. “What is most exciting to me, and what I never thought I would be doing, is going in and looking at candidate genes for traits. As the price of sequencing continues to drop, it will become more and more routine to do sequences for every individual population of plants you’re working with.”

In particular, these tools are helping breeders pivot their attention toward qualities of food that are important to consumers, instead of fixating solely on the needs of growers. Aided by genomics and related molecular tests, breeders have managed to create a cornucopia of new foods that are already available at some grocery stores and farmer’s markets, including cantaloupe that’s firm and ripe in the winter, snack-size bell peppers, broccoli that brims with even more nutrients than usual, onions that do not offend the eye and tomatoes that do not disappoint the tongue.
I look forward to tasting and eating such fruits and vegetables; I have found that many fruits that I loved as a child now lack taste. This shows that science can often take the interest of the consumer to heart.

You can read the rest of the article at [SciAmer]