Newly-designed tomatoes that grow atop skyscrapers or even in space can check land abuse

Extremely compact and bunched like grapes, these tomatoes mature quickly and produce ripe fruit that's ready for harvest in under 40 days

                            Newly-designed tomatoes that grow atop skyscrapers or even in space can check land abuse
By making harvests shorter, agriculture can reach new heights, say researchers. (Getty Images)

Scientists have introduced a new type of tomato plant into this world. Extremely compact and bunched like grapes, these tomatoes may be grown atop sprawling skyscrapers or even in deep space, according to scientists from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, US, who brought them to life.

Such plants could shape modern day farming, says the team. Further, these new tomatoes — which also happen to taste good — can help address climate change and land degradation, the researchers add.

"Here's a complementary approach to help feed people, locally and with a reduced carbon footprint," says Zach Lippman, the lead researcher and Professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. This eco-friendly method could also reduce the use of excessive fertilizer that runs off into rivers and streams and pollutes them.

Earlier this year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that at least 500 million people are living on land already degraded by deforestation, changing weather patterns, and overuse of viable cropland. By shifting some of the burden of growing the world's crops to urban and other areas, there's hope that desperate land mismanagement will slow down, says the study.

It is in this context that urban agriculture is promising. Urban agriculture can make an important contribution to household food security, especially in times of crisis or food shortages, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

But one limitation to urban farming is space — or the lack thereof. There is a need for compact plants that can be slotted or stacked into tight spaces, such as in tiered farming in warehouses or in converted storage containers. To make up for the limited space, farmers prefer faster growing plants. More harvests per year results in more food, even if the space used is small, says the study.

The new tomatoes are created by mutating three genes. (Lippman lab/CSHL, 2019)

So the team decided to experiment on tomatoes. They manipulated two genes — the SELF PRUNING (SP) and SP5G — hoping to make the plant grow faster and ripen sooner. But there is a limit to which the team could play around with the genes — lest they could risk changing the taste.

"When you're playing with plant maturation, you are playing with the whole system, and that system includes the sugars, where they are made, which are the leaves, and how they are distributed, which is to the fruits," says Lippman.

To make the plants more compact, the team found a third gene that controls the length of the stem: SIER. Taken together, when the team mutated the three genes, they ended up creating extremely compact tomato plants with shorter stems.

The researchers say that these new gene-edited tomato plants look nothing like the long vines one might find growing in a backyard garden or in agricultural fields. The most notable feature is their bunched, compact fruit — they resemble a bouquet whose roses have been replaced by ripe cherry tomatoes. They also mature quickly, producing ripe fruit that's ready for harvest in under 40 days, says the study.

Now, Lippman is focused on fine-tuning this technique. He will also apply this technique to fruits like kiwi. By making crops and harvests shorter, Lippman believes that agriculture can reach new heights, he says. "I can tell you that NASA scientists have expressed some interest in our new tomatoes," says Lippman.

The study has been published in Nature Biotechnology.

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