Posted on 14 March 2011 by

Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Tomato

By Mindy McIntosh-Shetter

Sherlock Holmes has always impressed me with his uncanny ability to put pieces together that did not seem to have any relationship to each other.

While on the surface this may seem only entertaining the ability to form relationships where there does not seem to be any is an invaluable skill in life, and in science.

Horticulture is one of those unique disciplines that mundane, and unconnected relationships go hand in hand when it comes to searching for the Holy Grail of Tomatoes.

Roger Chetelat the Director of C. M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center at the University of California, Davis is one of those individuals trying to find the ancestors of the common tomato. He is a cross between Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes is his ability to search out, document, and sample the ancestors he finds in Chile.

Some are new finds that he stumbles upon while others are ones he has documented or read about in journals. Through the searches in Chile, 17 native ancestors or Solanum chilense have been discovered. But one would be surprised at their appearance.

Solanum chilense is a perennial semi-woody stemmed plant that can range from a ground cover to a climber. Their leaves can in a range of shapes and colors. Some leaves have a sticky substance on them that catches insects like fly paper while other have a waxy film over leathery looking leaves. These leaves protect the plant from water loss much like succulents do in the desert. Also some leaves when broken off produce an aroma that resembles celery.

The fruit of the 17 native ancestors of tomatoes is as diverse as the leaves but they are all the size of a small fingernail and have vast tastes. Some can be described as tasting like eating soap to more of the traditional sweet, and mild taste. The colors are as diverse as the tastes and range from black to purple, and even yellow.

Also these native ancestors can be found green with either white stripes or a purple cast over a green hue but regardless of the color and/or taste these plants have been valued for hundreds of years and were domesticated by some Stone Age farmer that found value in the fruit.

Today’s value is a multifaceted approach of preserving genetic diversity and understanding other genome. The native ancestors have been found to have adaptive strategies not only for insects but are also resistant to several of the tomato diseases that plague the modern tomato plant. In the future this native disease resistance can be bred or gene spliced into tomato plants as another approach to pest control.

But as promising and wonderful this research is the fact that natural areas are disappearing is hampering the search for more samples of the native tomato. Sugar cane development, animals grazing, and urban development is all taking its toll on this simple but commercially important crop. And without the work of dedicated scientists the Mystery of the Tomato may never be solved.

So as we sit down to dinner tonight with our salsa, and ketchup gracing our table lets think about the modern day Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes that go out, search, and solve the mysteries that we all take for granted. Because without them, the true answer to the question that kids have asked such as, where does that come from would never really be known.

So until we blog again, Where would we be without the love apple and thy, our pizza would be bare and our Shirley Temple would be dry and, Oh, how we would care.

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