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Scientists Hope Study Will Make Tomatoes Great Again

Tomatoes bought in the supermarket quite often suck, frankly, their taste often not living up to their plump and juicy appearance. So, a new study, published in the journal Science, mapped out the genetic make-up of hundreds of tomatoes and identified the genes that make them so tasty. This could now be used by farmers or tomato breeders to home in on those genes and restore this fruit to its former glory. Over the past 50 years, tomatoes have gradually lost the complex blend of chemical compounds that are key to their flavor. That’s because tomato strains are often developed for other qualities, such as their coloring, size, hardiness, or more convenient ripening times. Flavor has been hard to fine-tune because breeders lack the tools to screen for it and the genes that code for it are seemingly random and hard to trace. The US is second only to China in worldwide tomato production, yet it is China who wants to make tomatoes taste great again (we couldn’t resist, sorry) by part-funding project. The Chinese government seems to have spotted some mouth-watering profits in commercializing a tastier tomato.
“Unlike Americans, we don’t eat a lot of pasta sauce or ketchup. Mostly, we stir-fry them or eat them fresh, so flavor is a major concern,” project co-leader Sanwen Huang told the Wall Street Journal. “I think there’s a trend where people are demanding tastier tomatoes. I think as Chinese get richer, they want better food.” The international team of scientists started off by finding the chemical compounds that give their desired taste. They found the tomato’s rich, deep, and sweet flavor is all down to 13 flavor-making sugars and volatile chemicals. “We wanted to identify why modern tomato varieties are deficient in those flavor chemicals,” said Harry Klee, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, in a statement. “It’s because they have lost the more desirable alleles of a number of genes.” Through genome sequencing the 398 modern, historic, and wild varieties of tomato, they managed to identify the locations of the good alleles that code for these crucial tasty chemical compounds. Now scientists know where these genes can be found, it can serve as a resource for breeders to fine-tune the tomatoes they are creating.   Of course, breeding numerous generations of a plant will take some time. But the researchers say new tomato varieties could be on the shelves in three to four years and will be more flavorsome than ever before. In fact, they might be the best tomatoes ever. It’s true, they’re gonna be great.

Tiny plastic particles in the ocean are changing the lives of baby European perch in many ways. Not only do microplastics inhibit hatching and stunt growth, these also prevent baby fish from eating zooplankton and responding to potential predators. The findings are published in Science this week.  The world’s plastic production is an estimated 300 million tonnes (330 million tons) a year, and it’s increasing by 20 million tonnes (22 million tons) annually. Much of that waste ends up in our oceans in the form of microplastics less than 5 millimeters in size. Sometimes they’re manufactured that way (like microbeads in exfoliating facewash), but large, non-biodegradable pieces often break down into tiny bits over time.  Because microplastic pollutants accumulate in shallow coastal habitats, juvenile fish likely encounter high concentrations of this debris in their nursery habitats. Yet, exactly how microplastics impact aquatic animals during their vulnerable early stages is still unknown.

To investigate, Uppsala University’s Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv collected fertilized egg strands of European perch (Perca fluviatilis) from the Baltic Sea. Back in the lab, they exposed them to three different concentrations of 90-micrometer polystyrene particles in glass aquaria containing estuarine water and a supply of brine shrimp. “The microplastic particle levels tested in the current study are similar to what is found in many coastal habitats in Sweden and elsewhere in the world today,” Lönnstedt explained.  Exposing developing embryos to microplastics decreased hatching success: 96 percent of the clean-water fish hatched, but fish in the high-concentration treatment had a hatching rate of 81 percent. Additionally, fish reared in high microplastic concentrations were much smaller than fish reared in average concentrations.  This stunted growth rate might be due to the amount of microplastics they ingested. On average, larval fish from the high microplastics group consumed 7.15 particles, while fish in the average concentrations group ate just 1.4, but in addition to brine shrimp. The stomachs of fish in the most plastic-filled water contained only plastic particles (pictured above). “This is the first time an animal has been found to preferentially feed on plastic particles and is cause for concern,” Eklöv said in a statement.
What’s more, larvae exposed to microplastics didn’t know to escape from predators. Prey typically have an innate response to what’s known as damage-released chemical alarm cues: The smell of injured fish signals the presence of a threat, which triggers fear responses like freezing in place. Exposed larvae didn’t exhibit antipredator behaviors, not even when their natural predators, juvenile pike, were released into the water. They were all dead within 24 hours. Meanwhile, 46 percent of the control fish were still alive after a day.

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