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Making Tomatoes More Nutritious

By David Elstein
June 24, 2002

Agricultural Research Service scientists have developed tomatoes that have higher lycopene levels, enhanced fruit juice quality, and longer vine life. Their study, conducted with researchers at Purdue University, is published in the current issue of Nature Biotechnology.

The scientists, based at the ARS Vegetable Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., genetically engineered tomatoes that contain increased levels of compounds called polyamines. The scientists found that polyamines--organic molecules carrying amino groups--play an important role in fruit development and found that increasing polyamines increases lycopene.

Diets high in lycopene, the red pigment in tomatoes, are associated with a lower risk of certain cancers. Lycopene is a carotenoid antioxidant that may also have other health- promoting effects.

According to plant physiologist Autar Mattoo, other researchers studying human nutrition have recommended that people get 10 milligrams of lycopene each day--the amount in 10-15 tomatoes. By comparison, just one or two of the new tomatoes would provide the same amount of lycopene. The tomatoes that Mattoo and cooperators studied were especially well-suited for products such as tomato paste.

The ARS-led research is the first to show direct evidence of a physiological role for polyamines in plants.

The new tomatoes are available for industry to commercialize, according to Mattoo.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.