Tomato Bushes Producing Cherry Bouquets In Less Than 40 Days

When three specific gene mutations are correctly combined and matched, scientists can turn tomato plants into extremely dense bushes. This gene editing causes them to group together like grapes.

Tomatoes can be a bit troublesome. From their propensity for pests to their great sun needs to their long, difficult branches, these delicious greens aren’t always easy to grow, especially in small spaces. Now, using gene editing, researchers have developed tomato plants that grow like a bush.

For several years, we have known that we can modify specific genes to control flowering and make plants more dense. But it took some time to figure out how to combine those traits into a small, high-yielding tomato.

Zachary Lippman, a plant biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York State.

Lippman and his colleagues have published their results in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

All flowering plants have a universal set of genes that encode the hormones that tell the plant to stop growing leaves and start producing flowers. In nature, those two growing periods are fairly balanced. But agricultural plant breeders give much more weight to the vegetative growth phase of the plant, when it produces leaves, since that is how it grows.

Zachary Lippman.

However, since flowering is what produces fruit and seeds, Lippman and his colleagues have also been investigating how to speed up that phase.

In this work, they identify the third in a series of genes that need to be modified to allow for faster flowering and fruit growth. The first two, which were already known, directly control the rapid flowering and growth of the fruit. But the third, which they identified in this work, actually controls the length of the stem. Using CRISPR-Cas 9 to “turn off” these three genes, they were able to produce small tomato bushes that produce cherry bouquets in less than 40 days.

Humanity has spent the past millennia genetically modifying crop species by reproducing the most favorable traits over the generations. This type of improvement works by selecting specimens that have mutations that make them better crops, for higher yield or faster growth. These crops are ideal for growing on traditional farms.

But researchers think that the current way of life requires crops that can grow in new environments and take new forms. And since human agriculture needs to be rapidly revolutionized to reduce emissions and feed a growing world population while adapting to the effects of climate change, these crops need to be on the market soon, and not in the span of several decades required to develop them in the traditional way. That’s where gene editing comes in: Scientists can instantly trigger mutations that can take decades or longer to appear naturally.

The team has dubbed the plants ” tomatoes for urban agriculture ” because they are part of a broader effort for use in cities. These plants must be compact and efficient, and they must be able to grow in vertical farms. The method, according to the researchers, is “very reproducible” in other plants, says Lippman, because the set of genes that control flowering are universal.

Soon we could have cucumber and kiwi bushes too.

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