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Scientists discover why supermarket tomatoes taste so bland

A new genetic analysis reveals big differences between cultivated and wild tomatoes and domesticated, store-bought tomatoes.

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  • Scientists compared the genomes of 725 wild and cultivated tomatoes (a pan-genome) to the tomato genome that's used to represent all varieties.
  • The representative genome was missing thousands of genes present in the pan-genome, including one that's responsible for imparting flavor to the vegetable.
  • The good news is that breeders seem to have recently began selecting for flavor, so it's possible that store-bought tomatoes could soon start tasting better.

Ever wonder why those pale-orange tomatoes in the supermarket often taste so bland? A new study shows that 93 percent of modern, domesticated tomatoes are missing a version of a gene that gives tomatoes their signature flavor.

The culprit isn't genetic modification, but rather breeders who've long selected for desirable traits that yield the most economic return. Over time, flavor-enhancing genes have been lost or negatively selected during the breeding process. The result is that today's supermarket tomatoes lack genetic diversity, and therefore flavor.

"During the domestication and improvement of the tomato, people mostly focused on traits that would increase production, like fruit size and shelf-life," Zhangjun Fei, a plant geneticist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who led the new study, said in a statement. "Some genes involved in other important fruit quality traits and stress tolerance were lost during this process."

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Nature Genetics, conducted the analysis by compiling the genetic information of 725 cultivated and wild tomatoes into a pan-genome, which represents the genetic information of all the strains. (The inclusion of wild tomatoes is especially important because they're more genetically diverse.) Then they compared this information to the domesticated tomato genome Heinz 1706, which is often used as a representative example of tomato genomes, according to Discover.

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The comparison revealed that Heinz 1706 was missing some 5,000 genes that were found in the pan-genome. Importantly, the researchers found that most tomatoes you'd find in the supermarket lack a rare form of a gene that gives tomatoes flavor. However, this gene – TomLoxC – is found in 90 percent of wild varieties.

"TomLoxC appears, based on its sequence, to be involved in producing compounds from fats," James Giovannoni, a USDA scientist and co-author on the paper, said in a statement. "We found it also produces flavor compounds from carotenoids, which are the pigments that make a tomato red. So it had an additional function beyond what we expected, and an outcome that is interesting to people who enjoy eating flavorful tomatoes."

The researchers hope their analysis will provide a more comprehensive resource for the "mining of natural variation for future functional studies and molecular breeding." In the meantime, it's possible that tomato breeders will start to return flavor to the vegetables on their own. Giovanni explained that TomLoxC is becoming more prevalent in modern, domesticated tomatoes, even compared to just a few years ago. The likely answer is that some breeders have begun to select for flavor.

Boosting the flavor of tomatoes could make a big difference in how we enjoy our meals, considering that tomatoes play a big role in most diets. For example, in the U.S., Americans eat an average of 20.3 pounds of tomatoes and 73.3 pounds of processed tomatoes each year.

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

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  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Lee Jae-Sung of Korea Republic lies on the pitch holding his knee during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group F match between Korea Republic and Germany at Kazan Arena on June 27, 2018 in Kazan, Russia.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Technology & Innovation

Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

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