Plant Research International has discovered the gene that makes tomatoes pink. Plant breeding companies are showing a great deal of interest in this gene; they are hoping to use it to conquer the Chinese and Japanese markets.
Pink tomatoes are unknown in the Netherlands but are very popular in countries like China and Japan. They have been grown there for years without the plant breeders knowing the exact genetic cause. European plant breeding companies would like to have pink versions of their tomato varieties to sell in the Asian market. They will now be able to breed such pink versions more successfully and efficiently.
Bovy's group carries out a great deal of research into flavonoids, not so much because of their role in determining the colour of various plants but because they are considered healthy food components of fruit and vegetables. Flavonoids probably function as antioxidants, reducing the likelihood of cardiovascular illnesses.
His group carried out biochemical studies of pink tomatoes and discovered that one important flavonoid was missing. Further research showed that a whole series of genes involved in the production of this compound were no longer expressed. It finally turned out that a single regulating gene was responsible for switching these genes on and off. 'When we tested our findings on different tomato varieties, the relationship between this gene and the pink colour turned out to be one hundred per cent', says Bovy. Plant breeders can now combine the pink colour with other positive characteristics in their product range, such as disease resistance and taste.
Eighteen months ago Bovy was involved from the sidelines in the development of a purple tomato that produces extra flavonoids, giving it a promising effect on health as demonstrated in animal experiments. English colleagues have taken the lead in developing this tomato further.