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Fixing the Tomato: CRISPR Edits Correct Plant-Breeding Snafu

Fixing the Tomato: CRISPR Edits Correct Plant-Breeding Snafu

Geneticists harness two mutations to improve on 10,000 years of tomato domestication

From their giant fruits to compact plant size, today’s tomatoes have been sculpted by thousands of years of breeding. But mutations linked to prized traits—including one that made them easier to harvest—yield an undesirable plant when combined, geneticists have found.

It is a rare example of a gene harnessed during domestication that later hampered crop improvement efforts, says geneticist Zachary Lippman of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. After identifying the mutations, he and his colleagues used CRISPR gene editing to engineer more productive plants—a strategy that plant breeders are eager to adopt.

“It’s pretty exciting,” says Rod Wing, a plant geneticist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “The approach can be applied to crop improvement, not just in tomato, but in all crops.”

ROTTEN TOMATOES

Lippman knows his way around a tomato farm. As a teenager, he spent his summers picking the fruit by hand—a chore he hated. “Rotten tomatoes. The smell lasts all day long,” he says. “I would always pray for rain on tomato-harvest day.”
But years later, his interest in the genetics that control a plant’s shape led him back to tomato fields, to untangle the genetic changes that breeders had unknowingly made.