The Science of Tomato Flavors

Don’t judge a tomato by its appearance. You may salivate when thinking about the luscious large red tomatoes you just purchased in your grocery store, only to find out that they are extremely bland and lack flavor once you actually bite into them after preparing the salad you had been looking forward to all day. You are not alone. Many consumers complain about the growing blandness of fruits. Up until a few decades ago, it was rather challenging to understand the scientific basis of fruit flavors. Recent biochemical and molecular studies of fruits now provide a window into fruit flavors and allow us to understand the rise of blandness.

In a recent article, the scientists Harry Klee and Denise Tieman at the University of Florida summarize some of the most important recent research on the molecular biology of fruit flavors, with a special emphasis on tomatoes. Our perception of “flavor” primarily relies on two senses – taste and smell. Taste is perceived by taste receptors in our mouth, primarily located on the tongue and discriminates between sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory. The sensation of smell (also referred to as “olfaction”), on the other hand, has a much broader catalog of perceptions. There are at least 400 different olfactory receptors present in the olfactory epithelium – the cells in the nasal passages which perceive smells – and the combined activation of various receptors can allow humans to distinguish up to 1 trillion smells. These receptors are activated by so-called volatile organic compounds or volatiles, a term which refers to organic molecules that are vaporize in the mouth when we are chewing the food and enter our nasal passages to activate the olfactory epithelium. The tremendous diversity of the olfactory receptors thus allows us to perceive a wide range of flavors. Anybody who eats food while having a cold and a stuffy nose will notice how bland food has become, even though the taste receptors on the tongue remain fully functional.

When it comes to tomato flavors, research has shown that consumers clearly prefer “sweetness”. One obvious determinant of sweetness is the presence of sugars such as glucose or fructose in tomatoes which are sensed by the taste receptors in the mouth. But it turns out that several volatiles are critical for the perception of “sweetness” even though they are not sugars but instead activate the smell receptors in the olfactory epithelium. 6-Methyl-5-hepten-2-one, 1-Nitro-2-phenylethane, Benzaldehyde and 2-Phenylethanol are examples of volatiles that enhance the positive flavor perceived by consumers, whereas volatiles such as Eugenol and Isobutyl acetate are perceived to contribute negatively towards flavor. Interestingly, the same volatiles can have no effect or even the opposite effect on flavor perception when present in other fruits. Therefore, it appears that for each fruit, the sweetness flavor is created by the basic taste receptors which sense sugar levels as well as a symphony of smell sensations activated by a unique pattern of volatiles. But just like instruments play defined yet interacting roles in an orchestra, the effect of volatiles on flavor depends on the presence of other volatiles.

This complexity of flavor perception explains why it is so difficult to define flavor. The story becomes even more complicated because individuals have different thresholds for olfactory receptor activation. Furthermore, even the volatiles linked with a positive flavor perception – either by enhancing flavor intensity or letting the consumer sense a greater “sweetness” then actually present based on sugar levels – may have varying effects when they reach higher levels. Thus, it is very difficult to breed the ideal tomato that will satisfy all consumers. But why is there this growing sense that fruits such as tomatoes are becoming blander? Have we simply not tried enough tomato cultivars? A cultivar is a plant variety that has been bred over time to create specific characteristics, and one could surmise that with hundreds or even thousands of tomato cultivars available, each of us might identify a distinct cultivar that we find most flavorful. The volatiles are generated by metabolic enzymes encoded by genes and differences between the flavor of distinct cultivars is likely a reflection of differences in gene expression for the enzymes that regulate sugar metabolism or volatiles generation.

The problem, according to Klee and Tieman, is that the customers of tomato breeders are tomato growers and not the consumers who garnish their salads or create tomato-based masalas. The goal of growers is to maximize shelf-life, appearance, disease-resistance, yield and uniformity. Breeders focus on genetically manipulating tomato strains to maximize these characteristics. The expression GMO (genetically modified organism) describes the use of modern genetic technology to modify individual genes in crops and often provokes a litany of attacks and criticisms by anti-GMO activists who fear potential risks of such genetic interventions. However, the genetic breeding and manipulation of cultivars has been occurring for centuries or even millennia using traditional low tech methods but these do not seem to provoke much criticism by anti-GMO activists. Even though there is a theoretical risk that modern genetic engineering tools could pose a health risk, there is no scientific evidence that this is actually the case. Instead, one could argue that targeted genetic intervention may be more precise using modern technologies than the low-tech genetic breeding manipulations that have led to the creation of numerous cultivars, many of whom carry the “organic, non-GMO” label.

Klee and Tieman argue that consumers prefer flavor, variety and nutrition instead of the traditional goals of growers. The genetic and biochemical analysis of tomato cultivars now offers us a unique insight into the molecular components of flavor and nutrition. Scientists can now analyze each cultivar that has been generated over the past centuries using the low-tech genetic manipulation of selective breeding and inform consumers as to their flavor footprint. Alternatively, one could also use modern genetic tools such as genome editing and specifically modify flavor components while maintaining disease-resistance and high nutritional value of crops such as tomatoes. The key to making informed, rational decisions is to provide consumers comprehensive information based on scientific evidence as to the nutritional value and flavor of fruits, as well as the actual risks of genetically modifying crops using traditional low tech methods such as selective breeding and grafting or newer methods which involve genome editing.


Klee, H. J & Denise M. Tieman (2018). The genetics of fruit flavour preferencesNature Reviews Genetics, (published online March 2018)

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.


Blissful Ignorance: How Environmental Activists Shut Down Molecular Biology Labs in High Schools

Hearing about the HannoverGEN project made me feel envious and excited. Envious, because I wish my high school had offered the kind of hands-on molecular biology training provided to high school students in Hannover, the capital of the German state of Niedersachsen. Excited, because it reminded me of the joy I felt when I first isolated DNA and ran gels after restriction enzyme digests during my first year of university in Munich. I knew that many of the students at the HannoverGEN high schools would be similarly thrilled by their laboratory experience and perhaps even pursue careers as biologists or biochemists.

What did HannoverGEN entail? It was an optional pilot program initiated and funded by the state government of Niedersachsen at four high schools in the Hannover area. Students enrolled in the HannoverGEN classes would learn to use molecular biology tools typically reserved for college-level or graduate school courses in order to study plant genetics. Some of the basic experiments involved isolating DNA from cabbage or how learning how bacteria transfer genes to plants, more advanced experiments enabled the students to analyze whether or not the genome of a provided maize sample had been genetically modified. Each experimental unit was accompanied by relevant theoretical instruction on the molecular mechanisms of gene expression and biotechnology as well as ethical discussions regarding the benefits and risks of generating genetically modified organisms (“GMOs”). The details of the HannoverGEN program are only accessible through the the Wayback Machine Internet archive because the award-winning educational program and the associated website were shut down in 2013 at the behest of German anti-GMO activist groups, environmental activists, Greenpeace, the Niedersachsen Green Party and the German organic food industry.

Why did these activists and organic food industry lobbyists oppose a government-funded educational program which improved the molecular biology knowledge and expertise of high school students? A press release entitled “Keine Akzeptanzbeschaffung für Agro-Gentechnik an Schulen!” (“No Acceptance for Agricultural Gene Technology at Schools“) in 2012 by an alliance representing “organic” or “natural food” farmers accompanied by the publication of a critical “study” with the same title (PDF), which was funded by this alliance as well as its anti-GMO partners, gives us some clues. They feared that the high school students might become too accepting of biotechnology in agriculture and that the curriculum did not sufficiently highlight all the potential dangers of GMOs. By allowing the ethical discussions to not only discuss the risks but also mention the benefits of genetically modifying crops, students might walk away with the idea that GMOs could be beneficial for humankind. The group believed that taxpayer money should not be used to foster special interests such as those of the agricultural industry which may want to use GMOs.

A response by the University of Hannover (PDF), which had helped develop the curriculum and coordinated the classes for the high school students, carefully analyzed the complaints of the anti-GMO activists. The author of the anti-HannoverGEN “study” had not visited the HannoverGEN laboratories, nor had he had interviewed the biology teachers or students enrolled in the classes. In fact, his critique was based on weblinks that were not even used in the curriculum by the HannoverGEN teachers or students. His analysis ignored the balanced presentation of biotechnology that formed the basis of the HannoverGEN curriculum and that discussing potential risks of genetic modification was a core topic in all the classes.

Unfortunately, this shoddily prepared “study” had a significant impact, in part because it was widely promoted by partner organizations. Its release in the autumn of 2012 came at an opportune time for political activists because Niedersachsen was about to have an election. Campaigning against GMOs seemed like a perfect cause for the Green Party and a high school program which taught the use of biotechnology to high school students became a convenient lightning rod. When the Social Democrats and the Green Party formed a coalition after winning the election in early 2013, nixing the HannoverGEN high school program was formally included in the so-called coalition contract. This is a document in which coalition partners outline the key goals for the upcoming four year period. When one considers how many major issues and problems the government of a large German state has to face, such as healthcare, education, unemployment or immigration, it is mind-boggling that de-funding a program involving only four high schools received so much attention that it needed to be anchored in the coalition contract. In fact, it is a testimony to the influence and zeal of the anti-GMO lobby.

Once the cancellation of HannoverGEN was announced, the Hannover branch of Greenpeace also took credit for campaigning against this high school program and celebrated its victory. The Greenpeace anti-GMO activist David Petersen said that the program was too cost intensive because equipping high school laboratories with state-of-the-art molecular biology equipment had already cost more than 1 million Euros. The previous center-right government which had initiated the HannoverGEN project was planning on expanding the program to even more high schools because of the program’s success and national recognition for innovative teaching. According to Petersen, this would have wasted even more taxpayer money without adequately conveying the dangers of using GMOs in agriculture.

The scientific community was shaken up by the decision of the new Social Democrat-Green Party coalition government in Niedersachsen. This was an attack on the academic freedom of schools under the guise of accusing them of promoting special interests while ignoring that the anti-GMO activists were representing their own special interests. The “study” attacking HannoverGEN was funded by the lucrative “organic” or “natural food” food industry! Scientists and science writers such as Martin Ballaschk or Lars Fischer wrote excellent critical articles stating that squashing high-quality, hand-on science programs could not lead to better decision-making. How could ignorant students have a better grasp of GMO risks and benefits than those who receive relevant formal science education and thus make truly informed decisions? Sadly, this outcry by scientists and science writers did not make much of a difference. It did not seem that the media felt this was much of a cause to fight for. I wonder if the media response would have been just as lackluster if the government had de-funded a hands-on science lab to study the effects of climate change.

In 2014, the government of Niedersachsen then announced that they would resurrect an advanced biology laboratory program for high schools with the generic and vague title “Life Science Lab”. By removing the word “Gen” from its title which seems to trigger visceral antipathy among anti-GMO activists, de-emphasizing genome science and by also removing any discussion of GMOs from the curriculum, this new program would leave students in the dark about GMOs. Ignorance is bliss from an anti-GMO activist perspective because the void of scientific ignorance can be filled with fear.

From the very first day that I could vote in Germany during the federal election of 1990, I always viewed the Green Party as a party that represented my generation. A party of progressive ideas, concerned about our environment and social causes. However, the HannoverGEN incident is just one example of how the Green Party is caving in to ideologies, thus losing its open-mindedness and progressive nature. In the United States, the anti-science movement, which attacks teaching climate change science or evolutionary biology at schools, tends to be rooted in the right wing political spectrum. Right wingers or libertarians are the ones who always complain about taxpayer dollars being wasted and used to promote agendas in schools and universities. But we should not forget that there is also a different anti-science movement rooted in the leftist and pro-environmental political spectrum – not just in Germany. As a scientist, I feel that it is becoming increasingly difficult to support the Green Party because of its anti-science stance.

I worry about all anti-science movements, especially those which attack science education. There is nothing wrong with questioning special interests and ensuring that school and university science curricula are truly balanced. But the balance needs to be rooted in scientific principles, not political ideologies. Science education has a natural bias – it is biased towards knowledge that is backed up by scientific evidence. We can hypothetically discuss dangers of GMOs but the science behind the dangers of GMO crops is very questionable. Just like environmental activists and leftists agree with us scientists that we do not need to give climate change deniers and creationists “balanced” treatment in our science curricula, they should also accept that much of the “anti-GMO science” is currently more based on ideology than on actual scientific data. Our job is to provide excellent science education so that our students can critically analyze and understand scientific research, independent of whether or not it supports our personal ideologies.


Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

Cellular Alchemy: Converting Fibroblasts Into Heart Cells

Medieval alchemists devoted their lives to the pursuit of the infamous Philosopher’s Stone, an elusive substance that was thought to convert base metals into valuable gold. Needless to say, nobody ever discovered the Philosopher’s Stone. Well, perhaps some alchemist did get lucky but was wise enough to keep the discovery secret. Instead of publishing the discovery and receiving the Nobel Prize for Alchemy, the lucky alchemist probably just walked around in junkyards, surreptitiously collected scraps of metal and brought them to home to create a Scrooge-McDuck-style money bin.  Today, we view the Philosopher’s Stone as just a myth that occasionally resurfaces in the titles of popular fantasy novels, but cell biologists have discovered their own version of the Philosopher’s Stone: The conversion of fibroblast cells into precious heart cells (cardiomyocytes) or brain cells (neurons).


Fibroblasts are an abundant cell type, found in many organs such as the heart, liver and the skin. One of their main functions is to repair wounds and form scars in this process. They are fairly easy to grow or to expand, both in the body as well as in a culture dish. The easy access to large quantities of fibroblasts makes them analogous to the “base metals” of the alchemist. Adult cardiomyocytes, on the other hand, are not able to grow, which is why a heart attack which causes death of cardiomyocytes can be so devastating. There is a tiny fraction of regenerative stem-cell like cells in the heart that are activated after a heart attack and regenerate some cardiomyocytes, but most of the damaged and dying heart cells are replaced by a scar – formed by the fibroblasts in the heart. This scar keeps the heart intact so that the wall of the heart does not rupture, but it is unable to contract or beat, thus weakening the overall pump function of the heart. In a large heart attack, a substantial portion of cardiomycoytes are replaced with scar tissue, which can result in heart failure and heart failure.

A few years back, a research group at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease (University of California, San Francisco) headed by Deepak Srivastava pioneered a very interesting new approach to rescuing heart function after a heart attack.  In a 2010 paper published in the journal Cell, the researchers were able to show that plain-old fibroblasts from the heart or from the tail of a mouse could be converted into beating cardiomyocytes! The key to this cellular alchemy was the introduction of three genes – Gata4, Mef2C and Tbx5 also known as the GMT cocktail– into the fibroblasts. These genes encode for developmental cardiac transcription factors, i.e. proteins that regulate the expression of genes which direct the formation of heart cells. The basic idea was that by introducing these regulatory factors, they would act as switches that turn on the whole heart gene program machinery. Unlike the approach of the Nobel Prize laureate Shinya Yamanaka, who had developed a method to generate stem cells (induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs) from fibroblasts, Srivastava’s group bypassed the whole stem cell generation process and directly created heart cells from fibroblasts. In a follow-up paper published in the journal Nature in 2012, the Srivastava group took this research to the next level by introducing the GMT cocktail directly into the heart of mice and showing that this substantially improved heart function after a heart attack. Instead of merely forming scars, the fibroblasts in the heart were being converted into functional, beating heart cells – cellular alchemy with great promise for new cardiovascular therapies.

As exciting as these discoveries were, many researchers remained skeptical because the cardiac stem cell field has so often seen paradigm-shifting discoveries appear on the horizon, only to later on find out that they cannot be replicated by other laboratories. Fortunately, Eric Olson’s group at the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center also published a paper in Nature in 2012, independently confirming that cardiac fibroblasts could indeed be converted into cardiomyocytes. They added on a fourth factor to the GMT cocktail because it appeared to increase the success of conversion. Olson’s group was also able to confirm Srivastava’s finding that directly treating the mouse hearts with these genes helped convert cardiac fibroblasts into heart cells. They also noticed an interesting oddity. Their success of creating heart cells from fibroblasts in the living mouse was far better than what they would have expected from their experiments in a dish. They attributed this to the special cardiac environment and the presence of other cells in the heart that may have helped the fibroblasts convert to beating heart cells. However, another group of scientists attempted to replicate the findings of the 2010 Cell paper and found that their success rate was far lower than that of the Srivastava group. In the paper entitled “Inefficient Reprogramming of Fibroblasts into Cardiomyocytes Using Gata4, Mef2c, and Tbx5” published in the journal Circulation Research in 2012, Chen and colleagues found that very few fibroblasts could be converted into cardiomyocytes and that the electrical properties of the newly generated heart cells did not match up to those of adult heart cells. One of the key differences between this Circulation Research paper and the 2010 paper of the Srivastava group was that Chen and colleagues used fibroblasts from older mice, whereas the Srivastava group had used fibroblasts from newly born mice. Arguably, the use of older cells by Chen and colleagues might be a closer approximation to the cells one would use in patients. Most patients with heart attacks are older than 40 years and not newborns.

These studies were all performed on mouse fibroblasts being converted into heart cells, but they did not address the question whether human fibroblasts would behave the same way. A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Eric Olson’s laboratory (published online before print on March 4, 2013 by Nam and colleagues) has now attempted to answer this question. Their findings confirm that human fibroblasts can also be converted into beating heart cells, however the group of genes required to coax the fibroblasts into converting is slightly different and also requires the introduction of microRNAs – tiny RNA molecules that can also regulate the expression of a whole group of genes. Their paper also points out an important caveat.  The generated heart-like cells were not uniform and showed a broad range of function, with only some of the spontaneously contracting and with an electrical activity pattern that was not the same as in adult heart cells.

Where does this whole body of work leave us? One major finding seems to be fairly solid. Fibroblasts can be converted into beating heart cells. The efficiency of conversion and the quality of the generated heart cells – from mouse or human fibroblasts – still needs to be optimized. Even though the idea of cellular alchemy sounds fascinating, there are many additional obstacles that need to be overcome before such therapies could ever be tested in humans. The method to introduce these genes into the fibroblasts used viruses which permanently integrate into the DNA of the fibroblast and could cause genetic anomalies in the fibroblasts. It is unlikely that such viruses could be used in patients. The fact that the generated heart cells show heterogeneity in their electrical activity could become a major problem for patients because patches of newly generated heart cells in one portion of the heart might be beating at a different rate of rhythm than other patches. Such electrical dyssynchony can cause life threatening heart rhythm problems, which means that the electrical properties of the generated cells need to be carefully understood and standardized. We also know little about the long-term survival of these converted cells in the heart and whether the converted cells maintain their heart-cell-like activity for months or years. The idea of directly converting fibroblasts by introducing the genes into the heart instead of first obtaining the fibroblasts, then converting them in a dish and lastly implanting the converted cells back into the heart sounds very convenient. But this convenience comes at a price. It requires human gene therapy which has its own risks and it is very difficult to control the cell conversion process in an intact heart of a patient. On the other hand, if cells are converted in a dish, one can easily test and discard the suboptimal cells and only implant the most mature or functional heart cells.

This process of cellular alchemy is still in its infancy. It is one of the most exciting new areas in the field of regenerative medicine, because it shows how plastic cells are. Hopefully, as more and more labs begin to investigate the direct reprogramming of cells, we will be able to address the obstacles and challenges posed by this emerging field.


Image credit: Painting in 1771 by Joseph Wright of Derby – The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone via Wikimedia Commons
Nam, Y., Song, K., Luo, X., Daniel, E., Lambeth, K., West, K., Hill, J., DiMaio, J., Baker, L., Bassel-Duby, R., & Olson, E. (2013). Reprogramming of human fibroblasts toward a cardiac fate Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (14), 5588-5593 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1301019110

Somatic Mosaicism: Genetic Differences Between Individual Cells

The cells in the body of a healthy person all have the same DNA, right? Not really! It has been known for quite some time now that there are genetic differences between cells within one person. The expression to describe these between-cell differences is “somatic mosaicism“, because cells can represent a mosaic of genetic profiles, even within a single organ. During embryonic development, all cells are derived from one fertilized egg and ought to be genetically identical. However, during every cell division errors and differences during DNA replication can occur and this can lead to genetic differences between cells. This process not only occurs during embryonic development but continues after birth.

As we age, our cells are exposed to numerous factors such as radiation, chemicals or other stressors which can causes genetic alterations, ranging from single nucleotide mutations to duplications and deletions of large chunks of DNA. Some mutations are known to cause cancer by making a single cell grow rapidly, but not all mutations lead to cancer. Many spontaneous mutations can either result in the death of a cell or do not even impact its function in any significant manner. DNA copy number variations (CNVs) is an expression used to describe a variable copy number of larger DNA segments of one kilobase (kb). Most recent studies on CNVs have compared CNVs between people, i.e. how many CNVs does person A have when compared to person B. It turns out that there may be quite a bit of genetic diversity between people that had previously been overlooked.

A new paper published in the journal Nature takes this one step further. It not only shows that there are significant CNVs between people, but even within a single person. In the study “Somatic copy number mosaicism in human skin revealed by induced pluripotent stem cells“, Alexej Abyzov and colleagues found significant CNVs in induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) that they had generated from the adult skin cells of human subjects. Importantly, most of these CNVs were not the result of reprogramming adult skin cells to the stem cell state. They were already present in the skin fibroblasts obtained from the human subjects. Most analyses of CNVs are performed on whole tissues or biopsies, but not on single cells, which is why so little is known about between cell CNV differences. However, when iPSCs are generated from skin fibroblast cells, they are often derived from a single cell. This enables the evaluation of genetic diversity between cells.

Abyzov and colleagues estimate that 30% of adult skin fibroblasts carry large CNVs. This estimate is based on a very small number of fibroblast samples. It is not clear whether other cells such as neurons or heart cells also have similar CNVs and whether the 30% estimate would hold up in a larger sample. Their work leads to the intriguing question: What percentage of neighboring cells in a single heart, brain or kidney are actually genetically identical? Cell types, such as heart cells or adult neurons cannot be clonally expanded so it may be difficult to determine the genetic diversity within a heart or a brain using the methods employed by Abyzov and colleagues.

What are the implications of this work? On a practical level, this study suggests that it may be important to derive multiple iPSC clones from a subject’s or patient’s skin cells, if one wants to use the iPSCs for disease modeling. This will help control for the genetic diversity that exists among the skin cells. However, a much more profound implication of this work is that we have to think about between-cell diversity within a single organ. We need to develop better tools for how to analyze genetic diversity between individual cells, and more importantly, we have to understand how this genetic diversity impacts health and disease.

Image Credit: Wikimedia / Alexander Mosaic (Public Domain)

Abyzov A, Mariani J, Palejev D, Zhang Y, Haney MS, Tomasini L, Ferrandino AF, Rosenberg Belmaker LA, Szekely A, Wilson M, Kocabas A, Calixto NE, Grigorenko EL, Huttner A, Chawarska K, Weissman S, Urban AE, Gerstein M, & Vaccarino FM (2012). Somatic copy number mosaicism in human skin revealed by induced pluripotent stem cells. Nature, 492 (7429), 438-42 PMID: 23160490