Keystone bred and proud of it: A tomato just for Pennsylvania

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences researcher has developed a soon-to-be released tomato hybrid that may save growers millions of dollars and provide incalculable benefits to public health.

The new tomato, tentatively called the Penn State Cherry Tomato, grows on plants that are resistant to diseases that typically ruin nearly a third of Pennsylvania’s tomato crop.

Also, the fruit contains, three times as much of the powerful antioxidant compound lycopene as do other cultivated strains of tomatoes.

Better than beta-carotene. Research has shown that lycopene in the human diet helps prevent many types of cancer and heart disease.

In particular, its consumption has been associated with reduced incidence of cancers of the digestive tract and lower heart attack risk.

Lycopene is a compound that imparts red color to fruits. It is abundant in tomatoes, with smaller amounts found in watermelon and pink grapefruit.

Lycopene is readily absorbed by the human body in its processed forms. Evidence suggests that lycopene is twice as effective in neutralizing free radicals, which may damage the body’s cells, as the better-known antioxidant beta-carotene.

Long road. lqajid Foolad, associate professor of plant genetics and breeding, has spent seven years developing tomatoes for Pennsylvania.

Unlike other strains of tomatoes developed primarily for California and Florida, where more than 90 percent of the country’s tomatoes are grown, the Penn State variety thrives in Pennsylvania’s climate.

“Cultivars of tomato developed for California or Florida never realize their full genetic potential here,” Foolad said. “In California, they can have two and sometimes three growing seasons. Our growing season in Pennsylvania is much shorter and cooler.”

Foolad also is conducting research to improve tomato cold tolerance and adaptation to Pennsylvania conditions.

Blight resistant. The new variety can resist fungal blights so common in the Keystone State. That’s big news because tomatoes are Pennsylvania’s second biggest vegetable crop, after sweet corn, with an annual harvest worth more than $16 million.

Foolad says early and late blight wipe out an average 30 percent of tomatoes grown in Pennsylvania. Most commercial growers spray costly fungicides 10 to 15 times during the growing season to protect their crops, at an estimated $1 million cost statewide annually.

Ancient ancestors. Foolad found the ingredients for the improved strain deep in the tomato’s past. He started with wild seeds from the gene banks maintained at C. M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center at the University of California, Davis, and the USDA Plant Genetic Resources Unit, Geneva, N.Y.

The resistance to blight and increased lycopene content were both found in wild tomato genotypes, which were painstakingly crossed and recrossed with cultivated tomato strains to obtain desired qualities.

“Wild tomatoes are very small, about the size of a nickel,” Foolad says. “The plants are huge, 6- to 8-feet high.”

Using conventional breeding techniques, he could map and tag genes to select the traits he wanted, to develop a hybrid ideal for growing in Pennsylvania.

More than 300 genotypes were screened in the first few years.

Red and round. The Penn State hybrid produces a deep red fruit compared to the paler color of other cultivated tomatoes. The fruit is almost perfectly round, with an average diameter of slightly more than an inch.

The Penn State Cherry Tomato will be showcased to growers, patented and released in the next year, Foolad said.

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