We summer gardeners have always known that the tomato is a complicated affair, full of mysteries that will perhaps never be fully understood. The difference between a good tomato and a great one, for example, is something a gardener can spend an entire summer — or several summers — thinking over. These are questions at least as complex as those that preoccupy vintners pondering the relative quality of vintage Chablis.
But in case we needed reminding of just what a delicate and sublime creation a tomato can be, fresh evidence has just arrived in the form of some research recently published by a consortium of plant scientists.
The researchers, who hail from 14 countries around the globe, worked together for nearly a decade to map out the tomato’s genetic code. They counted 31,760 genes in all, some 7,000 more than that of a person. That doesn’t mean that tomatoes are more complicated than humans, since our genes work differently than those of a tomato. Even so, we’ve tended some tomato vines that seem as fussy and unpredictable as our human brethren. With that in mind, we’re not surprised that the strand of genes governing a tomato is such a complicated necklace of commands.
There are good reasons for scientists to spend years sorting out how a tomato works. The hope is that with knowledge will come some new ideas for making tomatoes taste better. That would be a big help for supermarket tomatoes, we think. Many of them appear to have been developed strictly for size, so that they’re as big as softballs — and usually taste like softballs, too.
The race to build a better tomato is a race worth running, we believe. A good tomato, after all, is one of summer’s principal pleasures.