The shocking news about breeding for flavour

by Jeremy Cherfas on July 5, 2017

Luigi linked, with scarcely a comment, to a plant breeding paper by Kevin Folta, scourge of biotech deniers everywhere.

Stripped down, what Folta and his co-author, Harry J Klee, propose is that plant breeders “can now turn to the consumer for guidance in defining critical desires,” by which they mean previously unconsidered trifles like flavour and aroma.

I was going to let it lie – nil nisi bonum and all that – but I just can’t.

The burr under my saddle is not the cutesy metaphor of the Model T Ford, nor the pedantic insistence that tomato is a fruit while strawberry is a vegetable. It is this:

The idea of putting the consumer first is shockingly novel …

To which I can only reply, “Srsly?”.

What about the shockingly novel idea of participatory variety selection, in which participants are encouraging to evaluate sensory traits and even practical matters like preparation and cooking time? What about the Culinary Breeding Network and many other breeders who are already working closely with chefs and other consumers?

Another shocking aspect to the paper is how fundamentally reductionist it is, although that also explains why they think it so novel to consult people who eat fruit and veg, as opposed to intensive farmers and their customers, the usual consumers for reductionist plant breeders. The focus is on relating what consumers say they like to specific levels of specific compounds, and those compounds to specific genes, the better to manipulate them.

There are, I admit, some juicy insights as a result of this approach. It is indeed interesting that in the strawberry vegetable, a few specific genes underly specific different flavours, while in the tomato berry many related genes and metabolic pathways influence flavour, and are under the control of a few regulatory genes. One heirloom tomato is consistently reported as sweeter than a modern variety, even though it contains 10% less sugar. Why? Because it contains “significantly higher levels of certain volatiles … creating the illusion of sweetness in the absence of sugar”. In strawberries, “furaneol and its methyl ether 2,5-dimethyl–4-methoxy–3(2H)-furanone … produces [sic] a rich, buttery, caramel-like aroma” while γ-decalactone – produced by the gene FAD1 – “confers a strong peach essence”.

Folta and Klee conclude by noting that:

Coupling the targets defined by consumer tests to today’s powerful metabolomic and genomic technologies, plus the potential for genome editing, suggests that creating the next wave of highly flavored fruits and vegetables can be streamlined compared with yesterday’s processes of traditional breeding.

It suggests other things, too, but I’ve said plenty.

Syndicated from The Mothership.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Joe Golden July 5, 2017 at 4:51 pm

Or they could just simply say

“Hey everybody, I think we’ve found another way to make potentially profitable utility patents!”

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Dave Wood July 5, 2017 at 6:18 pm

Do we actually need to breed for flavour? There are masses of older varieties that have been already selected for flavour already out there. I had the season’s first `Anya’ potato for supper yesterday, not even an old variety – the first of our own crop after last season’s ran out in March. Marvelous taste. Today we had a lunchtime beer of a mix from four different British new breweries – spectacular. Hop breeders are going for new flavours all the time. We are growing heritage strawberries from the Scottish varietal collection at nearby Fyvie castle. I taste-tested many hundreds of the Capsicum varieties being multiplied in CATIE, Costa Rica, freely available to anyone. If you want flavour you can readily buy it or grow it or cadge it from someone. And if you want sweetness try Synsepalum dulcificum – you’ll soon taste that sweetness isn’t everything.

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KCTomato July 5, 2017 at 7:17 pm

There certainly are many wonderful existing varieties out there with flavor in many crops.

Within the tomato genome there exists under utilized diversity with which to create new kinds of flavor profiles. I’ve been exploring it for over 20 years. I’m very grateful and indebted to the genebanks, geneticists and breeders which have given me access, resources and information to do so.

I’ve worked with melons and experienced that to be the case as well.

The possibilities are out there.

I find further varietal development worth exploring for the culinary and (perpetuation/creation of) diversity reasons as well as my own curiosity.

(Rant) My only concern is if entities do so based on financial gain and limit or prevent others from accessing such material or information in the future.

Thank you Stubbe, Rick and others for openly sharing material and having some fore sight that they were contributing and sharing something to be built on rather than a means to an end. (/Rant)

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