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Tomatoes With Staying Power

By Tara Weaver-Missick
September 5, 2000

Researchers with the Agricultural Research Service and Purdue University have found a way to slow down tomato ripening and improve tomatoes’ nutritional quality.

If the season is right, a brilliant-red tomato may be sitting on the table of ARS plant physiologist Autar K. Mattoo. Although it looks like it’s just been just picked off the vine, it’s probably one of his genetically enhancd tomatoes that’s been sitting there for weeks.

Mattoo and his collaborators developed a novel way of slowing down tomato ripening by introducing a yeast gene that controls this function in the fruit.

Living cells, including those of plants, contain genes that control many functions. Some genes are “turned on” only at a certain developmental stage or in response to an environmental cue. At other times, these genes are “turned off.” Scientists can use genetic engineering technology to modify these genes to turn them on or off at any particular time.

The new transgenic tomatoes have a lycopene content 2.5 times higher than non-transgenic tomatoes. Lycopene is a carotenoid that may aid in preventing early blindness in children, preventing cancer and enhancing cardiovascular health.

Traditional breeding allows transfer of hundreds of genes in a relatively random manner--good or bad traits are sometimes haphazardly passed along to the new plant. With genetically enhanced plants, scientists know exactly what’s going into the plant and how to monitor it.

Before the new tomato can be made available as a food, it will undergo years of rigorous testing for health and environmental safety.

More information on this research appears in the September issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

The scientists developed the transgenic tomatoes as part of a nationwide effort in horticultural research at ARS, the chief scientific agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For more information, see the list of ARS national programs in "Crop Production, Product Value, and Safety" at:

Scientific contact: Autar K. Mattoo, ARS Vegetable Laboratory, Beltsville, Md.; phone (301) 504-7380, fax (301) 504-5555,