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Tomato Genetics Altered for Urban Farms

Gene-altered tomatoes

Tomatoes genetically modified to grow faster and in bunches (Lippman Lab, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory)

24 Dec. 2019. Plant scientists used a genome-editing technique to produce varieties of tomatoes better suited for growing  on urban farms and other small plots. Researchers from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York and other institutions describe their plants in yesterday’s issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology (paid subscription required).

A team led by CSHL plant geneticist Zachary Lippman is seeking food crops that can be grown quickly in limited spaces, such as urban community farms and green roofs, while still retaining their desirable taste and color qualities. The authors note that growing crops in these smaller plots and closer to customers, can have beneficial environmental impacts, particularly with many traditional rural farms threatened by climate change. Up to now, however, only green leafy vegetables have been shown to grow readily on urban farms.

Lippman and colleagues in the U.S., Germany, Korea, and Israel took a different approach, by designing crops with flowers and fruits with properties needed to thrive in urban environments. These properties include smaller spaces and less time for growing, which allows for more harvests per year. These qualities, however, are basic features of these crop plants. “When you’re playing with plant maturation,” says Lippman in a CSHL statement, “you’re playing with the whole system, and that system includes the sugars, where they’re made, which is the leaves, and how they’re distributed, which is to the fruits.”

The researchers identified a series of traits for modification in Solanaceae plants, which cover a range of common flowering and crop plants, including peppers and tomatoes. The team used the genome-editing technique Crispr to alter specific genes in vine tomatoes. Crispr — short for clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats — makes it possible to edit genomes of organisms by harnessing bacterial defense mechanisms that use RNA to identify and monitor precise locations in DNA.

Among the tomato genes edited by the lab are SlER that regulates the length of stems and vines, SP5G for reducing the time needed for flowering, and SP to terminate growth earlier.  The researchers discovered they could alter these genes in one step with Crispr, resulting in compact, quick-growing plants more suitable for urban farms, with fruit that grow in bunches more like grapes. The team confirmed the viability of these varieties in greenhouse tests, including maintaining crop yields with the smaller plants.

“This demonstrates how we can produce crops in new ways,” says Lippman, “without having to tear up the land as much or add excessive fertilizer that runs off into rivers and streams.” He adds, “They have a great small shape and size, they taste good, but of course that all depends on personal preference.”

The Lippman lab’s work is covered by current and applied patents, and exclusively licensed to Inari Agriculture in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Inari Agriculture is a four year-old company using genetics and and bioinformatics to create more sustainable and environmentally-friendly crops. Lippman is a scientific adviser, and co-author Zachary Lemmon, a former postdoctoral researcher at CSHL, a bioinformatics scientist at Inari Agriculture.

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