Jun 11, 2019
Dr. Harry Klee is a Professor in Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida working to understand the chemical and genetic make-up of "flavor" in fruits and vegetables. After starting his career at Monsanto, in 1995 he accepted an endowed chair position tasked with developing better tomato varieties through traditional breeding techniques. Enjoy this wide-ranging conversation covering plant breeding, genetic modification/gene editing, why tomatoes at the supermarket don’t taste very good, how Harry’s lab is producing a better tasting tomato, and much more!
For further information about Dr. Klee and his lab check out his website at: http://old-hos.ifas.ufl.edu/kleeweb/index.html
Making a Tastier Tomato with Dr. Harry Klee - Plant Breeding and Molecular Biology
Something to Chew On is a podcast devoted to the exploration and discussion of global food systems. It's produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University. I'm Jay Weeks PhD candidate in the Department of Agronomy. My co host is Scott Sonoda, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy who specializes in the philosophy of science. Everybody, welcome back. Today's guest is Dr. Harry Klee. Harry is an eminent scholar and professor in horticultural sciences working to understand the chemical and genetic makeup of flavor in fruits and vegetables. His career began in Monsanto in the mid 80s, where he helped to develop the techniques that launched genetically engineered crops into agriculture. In 1995, he was offered an endowed position at the University of Florida working to develop better varieties for the state's tomato industry through traditional breeding techniques, and he remains there still today. In 2009, he was elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And three years later, in 2012, he was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, Scott, John and I had a lot of fun talking with Harry, we cover a wide range of topics, including traditional plant breeding, genetic modification, and gene editing. Why tomatoes in the supermarket often don't taste very good. How Harry's lab is identifying compounds that are important to producing better tasting tomatoes, and what it's like to be a scientist and industry along with many, many other things. Hope you enjoy. Dr. Harry Klee, welcome to the podcast.
It's a pleasure to be here.
So we'll have introduced you a little bit in the intro to the podcast here. But tell us in your own words, a little bit about yourself. How did you get to where you are today?
Ah, how did I get here? Actually, I started my Bachelor's degree in Psychology. And I very quickly decided that psychology was a field that I didn't want to be in that it intrigued me actually, I got into science because I worked in a mental hospital for my summer internships. And I saw the remarkable things that could happen to people who were crazy when you gave them drugs. And I started to say, oh, you know, maybe behavior is all about drugs, I need to know more about biochemistry. So then I got into biochemistry and got into from there into microbiology, and from there into plant biology. And here I am working on tomatoes.
So did you start taking microbiology courses and biochemistry courses in undergrad? Or is it something you knew when you graduate you want to pursue in graduate school?
Actually, I did not take any Microbiology as an undergraduate, I looked at it as a major and the university said, you can't take any microbiology courses, even if you're a major until you're a junior. And I said, Well, that's crazy. Why do I want to go all the way to my third year before I even find out if I like this? So no, I took chemistry and a little bit of Biochemistry as an undergraduate but no Microbiology.
So then you said you went on to graduate school? Right out of right out of undergrad that yes,
yes. Straight into a Biochemistry PhD program.
What would you do there?
Actually, my first project was working on frogs, we actually went out and, and in the summertime, we'd go out and capture bullfrogs in the ponds, and we'd bring them back to the lab and cut out their livers. And I decided that that was not for me, I did not want to work on anything involving killing animals. So at that point, I switched. And the last part of my PhD actually was working on BT bacteria. e coli.
So, from there, how'd you work your way into the plant sector then?
So at the time that I was finishing my PhD, was a very exciting time for plant biology because people had just discovered this organism, this bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, actually took a piece of its DNA and put it into plant cells. And I thought, oh my god, this is this burgeoning new field that we were just calling Biotechnology was something that really intrigued me and I thought that wow, if I could understand how this organism worked, we could use it to genetically engineer plants and that would be the coolest thing ever. And so I went and did my postdoc on Agrobacterium. And that turned out to be the foundation for my career, and then led me from there to Monsanto, where I worked for a decade for them.
So there, I mean, it must have been a fascinating time to be starting in science. So why is Agrobacterium so important? Like what's happening there to just allow us to do the biotech no logical transformations?
Well, Agrobacterium is what we would call today a plant pathogen. It makes tumors in trees, it's a real problem in the orchard industry, for example, and people didn't know how it worked. And literally the year before I got to the lab, a good friend of mine, Mike Thomas show, figured out that it took a piece of its DNA and transferred it into the plant, where it incorporated into the plant became part of the plant DNA. And it stayed there and cause these tumors. And people said, well, you know, if we could understand how it makes the tumors and get rid of the genes that make the tumors, but just leave the part that makes the DNA get transferred, and incorporated in you could put anything you wanted, in between the ends of this DNA and get it into the plant. pathogen to vector. Yeah. And so we said, oh, you know, this is the key to being able to, it just breaks well, that we returned, inter Kingdom DNA transfer, you know, from bacteria into a plant. And we thought, nothing else can do this. This is remarkable. And if we understood this, and we could, we could harness that power to introduce things which, for example, genes that confer resistance to insects or herbicides. And so I thought, this is a field that I just have to get into. And we still didn't know how to truly harness it. When I started my postdoc. We were figuring out the rules, how does the bacterium work, what's required for that DNA transfer, and that was my postdoctoral research. And when I finished up and it was time to get a job, I can remember I interviewed for several academic positions. And I interviewed at Monsanto and, and literally at Monsanto, they had just made the first transgenic plants literally, like a month before I interviewed there. And, and I went there. And I interviewed and I was just blown away by what they wanted to do, and how dedicated they were and how focused they were on improving agriculture and helping farmers. And it's funny because I got a job offer from the University of Illinois and Microbiology. And I told the chairman, I said, No, I think I'm going to come to Monsanto. And he said, you're going to watch? And he says, Well, you should come back. And to a second interview, I said, I don't need to do a second interview. This is what I want to do. On the air. And so, I went to Monsanto and got involved in the earliest stages of what I would consider the second green revolution. You know, we were a dedicated group of people. And I know everybody today likes to bash Monsanto, but I can say firsthand, these were and still are truly dedicated people who were trying their best to make agriculture better. And I was involved and, you know, it's kind of fun as you fly across the Midwest in an airplane, you can look out the window and said, I did that. And there aren't very many people who can say that. Sure.
Yeah, that's true. That's very true. Are there I'm a serial person serial biochemist. And we fight the hexaploid nature of the plant. Are there limits is that bacterium efficient in a in such a polyploid? Ik?
Yes, ah, yes, you can. There still, it's more of an art form to transform certain plants. I think that people are more using for some of the monocots, which Agrobacterium doesn't infect very well. It still can be easier to use other techniques like the particle gun, where you bombard the tissues with free DNA. But Agrobacterium works quite well. For example, in maize, And, you know, we transform? Well, we can transform canola, which is a tetraploid. We basically the limiting step is, merely can you take tissue and regenerate it into a whole plant. And that's still hard with some crops. But, but yeah, Agrobacterium works great for you, for you, us types.
Maize is what a lot of people would call corn, although that's not universal.
So when you have the transfer of tissue, you need to bring it to a whole crowd, what needs to happen there.
Basically, the system, you introduce DNA into single cells. And what you need is the ability to take that single cell that you've introduced the DNA and regenerate a whole plant. For some plants, that's really easy. The first plants that were transformed were things like tobacco, Petunia, trivial, the tissue culture for tobacco was worked out a century ago. And it's easy to take a single cell and regenerate a whole plant from in other plants, it's much harder. Maize was probably 10 years behind tobacco, for example, it was just harder to work with.
What makes them so much different?
Their response to the plant hormones, they, we use tricks with, with hormones to, you know, you take a single cell typically, and you grow it as a callus on artificial media. And then what you do is you trick it into making shoots by applying a hormone we call cytokine. And, so the suddenly those that mass of cells will start to form an organized shoot that comes up on and starts to grow and looks more like a plant. And then after that, you can cut off that shoot from the callus and stick it on a different medium, which forces it to make roots. And again, you know, this kind of technology has been worked out in some species for many years, a lot of plants are micropropagated. That's the way they work. It's for example, or micropropagated, you can make billions of orchids that are absolutely identical through tissue culture. So it just depends on the species.
And these hormones are naturally produced anyway, right? I mean, our plants are using these in the environment. Absolutely.
And to come full circle, the way that Agrobacterium makes tumors is it actually has genes that cause the plant to make oxygens and cytokinins. And that's how it tricks the plant into growing these tumors, which are the home for the bacteria.
In a cereal that's basically living but very slowly living, you'll have hormones that are produced and released under specific stimulation that will go into the seed itself and cause it to to start turning itself on and starting to Germany.
Yeah, yeah. All plants make these hormones.
So you're no longer with Monsanto. After Monsanto. You came back to academia, right? I did. So how did that happen? What made you decide to come back?
Um, I guess a couple of things. The first thing was that we actually developed products and you might think being an accompany once you develop some products that would give you some freedom to do more exciting things. Well, that's not the way it works. The closer you get to products, the more focus there is on making more products. And so it became very product oriented. When I first went there, everything we did was basic science, it was discoveries, research, and we were publishing papers in the best journals. You know, we publish papers and science and nature, which are the top level publications. We were everything we did was discovery. You know, we had to figure out everything there was about what we now call plant molecular biology. But after we figured out how to do this stuff, it became more of what can we do to make products. And also success in a company basically means that you move up in the bureaucracy and you become more of a manager rather than a scientist. And so I said, you know, running a big group is not what I want to be. I want to be a scientist on one. I want to keep my hands in the science and I was very lucky. I was offered an endowed chair at the University of Florida in 1995. And they said we love what you're doing. We want you to work on tomatoes and whatever you want to do is fine with us. When I said that sounds great, either.
Yes. Monsanto had what they called a Fellows Program. And you could be a science fellow or you could be a manager. And in theory, on paper, those were two equal parallel tracks. In practice, though, the fellows were not given the same respect as the managers, if you had 25 people working for you in a big budget, it was worth a whole lot more than some publication, right, and a couple of technicians.
Or a patent here and there. Yeah.
So he started working on tomatoes. So why tomatoes? Well, what's the problem? And what are you trying to solve? Or what are you trying to solve?
So tomato was the number one vegetable crop in Florida when I moved there. It's still sort of is. And it's so it's a very, very important to the Florida's agriculture, I work at a land grant university, our mission is to help the agriculture in the state of Florida. And so it made perfect sense to work on tomatoes. And when I looked around, I said, Well, what's the biggest problem with tomatoes and and the biggest problem was flavor. In fact, there's a great article that I still have that was published in the New Yorker, I think, in 1987, or something like that, that basically talks about how all of the commercial tomatoes look great, but their heart is a rock and they taste like cardboard.
Could you say something about how we got there?
Yeah. So that was the first question. I said, How could you've done this, right? And obviously, and, in fact, there was another book that was published a few years ago, I'm trying to remember what the name of it is, oh, tomato land. This guy published a book called tomato land. And he talks about what motivated him to write the book was, he was running a writing on the interstate highway in Florida. And there was a truck full of tomatoes in front of them, and one of them bounced out of the truck, bounced off the road and hit his windshield and cracked. And I made I shouldn't do that. And so you look at that. And you say, how did this happen? And I guess I'm giving away the punch lines of some of my seminar that I'm going to give later today here. But the reason is actually fairly simple. And that is that the growers are not paid for flavor. The growers are paid for how many pounds of red objects they put in a box. And flavor is not something that they're paid for. In fact, if you talk to them, they'll say, not only am I not paid for it, but if I had a tomato, that tasted really good, the wholesaler is going to take the box of tomatoes, put them in the refrigerator, and it's going to ruin the flavor. So not only am I not being paid for it, if I had it, someone else down downstream would probably screw it up system won't keep it. And so if you look at it, the supply chain, it's very difficult to produce high quality tomatoes at one end, and get them to the consumer at a reasonable price at the other end. It's very difficult. And so they're most growers. Well, in fact, today this is not true when I first moved to Florida, but today, the majority of tomatoes grown in the field in Florida don't go to the consumer, they go to the food service industry. And the only thing that McDonald's or subway care about McDonald's particular, they want it to be round. They want it to be about the same diameter as a hamburger bun. And they want to be able to make eight uniform slices that don't drip all over you and just sit there and look pretty on top of your hamburger and so the majority of tomatoes in Florida today go to the foodservice industry. In fact the majority of tomatoes that are now in commercial production that go to consumers come from either Mexico or Canada. You know you get you can get a better tomato out of a greenhouse and Canada and you can and field out of Florida.
Have you seen those greenhouse facilities? Quite incredible.
They're amazing. Yeah, I mean, they've got it down there. producing large numbers of fruits, they pick them when they're fully ripe, as opposed to Florida where they're picking them when they're still green. And so, the whole system is set up to not reward the grower for producing quality.
So how much that has changed? Okay, we'll get into the science. But I wonder how much sort of what were the cultural forces that have shifted this and how much of that was maybe actually due to the scientific developments to like giving people a image of new possibilities.
I would say almost nothing to do with the science. It's all really based on economics. The growers in those greenhouses and the growers in Mexico can produce a cheaper product. And to some extent, the consumers have recognized that the Florida field tomato does not taste that good. And so there has been this shift towards vine ripe tomatoes, which honestly don't taste a whole lot better, but tastes a little bit better. There's been all of these new niche markets, now you see cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, which have a lot more flavor than the big ones. You see the tomatoes, like the compound, the tomato, which is much smaller cells at a premium, you know, you're talking $3 A pound maybe versus $1, a pound for field grown tomato, more people are willing to pay for that ticket, because they know they'll get a quality. The compiler has very specific requirements, it has to be picked, when it's ripe, it has to be shipped quickly, it can't be refrigerated. And people do recognize that. Unfortunately, though, most people still buy on price. You know, I would say that 20% of the population will maybe shop at a Whole Foods, I don't shop at Whole Foods, I think they charge outrageous amounts of money. And I'm not gonna say it. But some people will shop at places like that there's been much more growth in farmers markets. But that's seasonal. You know, on a year round basis, you know, there's kind of this dichotomy. Everybody would like to eat like Alice Waters, and eat only what's seasonal, and what's local. But the reality is, most people don't want to do that. Most people want their tomato 12 months of the year, they want their cantaloupe, 12 months of the year, and we pay the price for that. And the price is that you have an emphasis on ship ability rather than flavor. But so I think still 80% of the population buys on cost, not quality. And then they complain about the quality, right?
So for me, tomatoes are one of these things that I pretty much only season except for the little those small ones, because those ones year round, those are not bad, right? You know, but there's no point in buying a tomato on the store and winter.
It's not gonna taste very good.
So what's your plan to change that? Or what are you guys doing to make improvements? So the tomato in LA tastes better, but also is economically viable for the farmer?
Well, so what we've done is to focus on, first of all, what is the genetics of flavor? What's gone wrong with the modern tomato? Why does it taste that way? Some of it is production, but a lot of it is the genetics just are inferior, as if you don't select for something, you will essentially select against it. And so tomato flavor is extremely complex, we've identified dozens of genes that affect flavor, and the growers basically have completely ignored him. And while the breeders have six have ignored it. And so what happens is you've you know, you've got two copies of every gene unless you're in a hexaploid. But you got two copies of every gene, you could have a good copy and a bad copy. And if you don't select for it randomly, you stand a chance of getting the good one as the bad one. Well, what's happened is that we've ended up with modern tomatoes. If you look at the whole spectrum of the genetics of tomatoes, modern tomatoes are one tiny, tiny sliver of them they've been highly inbred breeders have taken each other's varieties and exchange them either willingly or unwillingly, very, very narrow genetics. And what's happened is that a lot of the desirable alleles of genes, the copies that have the better properties have been lost. And so you end up with a tomato that basically is genetically inferior in terms of flavor.
How different is the tomato, in the sense of having lost a lot of this genetic diversity? See versus others I think is the same story is true for a lot of agriculture projects, right?
I would argue that any crop that has been intensively bred, if you look at nutrition, or flavor quality, it has deteriorated. And I can go down the list, I can say strawberries are another classic example where people have bred for very large fruit with very little flavor. Basically, all they've done is to increase yield is add water. And that's what we've done with tomatoes, we've just added water, you know, you just diluted out the flavor chemicals with more water. And that translates into yield, you can look at, there's some studies with grains that if you look at micronutrient contents of some grains, you can find that the modern varieties have less than the older varieties. So it's not it's not just tomatoes, it's any intensively bred crop.
And as a precursor to doing all the flavor biochemistry, did you actually go in and have to use sensory techniques to identify what the flavor was? Yes, in that way? Yes, absolutely. So you do that in house? Or did you go out to someone.
We collaborate with a group in food science, and so we have done consumer panels in our food science department, we've, anybody who's done these kinds of things can appreciate how much work this is, we've tested 160 different varieties of tomatoes over probably a decade now. And just think of the logistics of getting enough ripe fruit at the same stage to give to 100 consumers on one day. It's it's been a large amount of work, but basically what we've done, I apologize if anybody's going to attend my seminar today, because you're gonna know the answers.
To people listening to this one not worth hearing twice.
But the reality is, what we've done is we've we take lots of varieties, we've covered the gamut from old heirloom varieties to wild accessions to the most modern, highly inbred varieties, we give them to our consumers. We take samples back to the lab, we grind them up, we measure 68, different flavor associated, potentially associated chemicals. We then go back and say, which ones did you like? Which ones did you not like? And we estimate it when? Yes. And so you end up with a giant statistical puzzle? Which chemicals are correlated with liking and which ones aren't?
So I have so many questions about this, but sort of two of them quickly. One of them is how do you control for so many of those other factors, right? Because these tomatoes all grow in different ways, right? So you're going to be sensitive, you know, to their growth environments. differently, right?
Yeah, that's a very complicated answer. But so what we've tried to do is, we kind of, we embrace the diversity, as long as we're measuring what's in it on the day that we harvested, and the consumers are telling us how much they like on the day that they how we harvested it, it doesn't matter.
So the point isn't so much, which varietal of tomato right or heirloom, it's sort of what are the chemicals? And so then it doesn't matter as much?
That's exactly correct.
So ask a question that would be very sensitive to it, right?
Yes. So the first question is simply which chemicals drive people to like those tomatoes? The second question is more complicated. And that is what is the underlying genetics, and that's where the environment plays a huge role. And so we have ways to deal with that. The best way we deal with it is we always have what we call a check variety out in the field. We've grown it every season, and we put it through our consumer panels every season. So whether we've had a dry year or wet year, cold year, we can always correlate everything back to that one variety that's always present. That's the best way that we have to control the genetics, the environmental influence on the genetics. But that's the extremely difficult part. And honestly, it was easier to figure out what the chemistry of flavor was than it was to figure out the genetics of flavor.
So how much you looking at the, like a lot of these are volatiles, right, sort of how much? How much just texture play role and other factors and people's reactions and how much is that complicated that part of his story?
It does complicate things quite a bit actually. So, so well, not quite a bit, what I'll tell you is it's kind of funny. So we've, we've used our statistical models to say, can we develop a prediction software, where we can just grind up a sample and predict how much people will like it without having to do the consumer panel? And what we found is that about roughly 85% of the time, we could do a perfect correlation. Based on the chemistry, oh, breeder, if you're a breeder, 85%. It's like, wow, yeah. We started to think about what's wrong with the other 15%. And, and it turns out that in most cases, you go back and you find that they're, for the most part, they're just really mushy. Meili is the term we use. And there are texture problems, and they stand out like a sore thumb. The chemistry, when we look at the chemistry, people should really like this, what is this and then it's like, I don't know if you've ever grown heirloom tomatoes. But there are a few like, well, Brandy wines, a great example of it. brandy wine is one that if you pick it off the vine, and when it's perfectly ripe, and you bring it in your house and eat it right away, it's delicious. You let it sit on the kitchen counter for 24 hours, and it gets mushy. And they're terrible. And so that's what we would find we would find that texture did have an influence. If it was so the way I like to phrase it is texture can kill the flavor. It's in most tomatoes, they're within a range that it doesn't make much difference. But if they are way too firm, or way too soft, it's just kills it. And they're, they're awful.
So you've used the term heirloom a few times, and I know that's becoming more and more popular. You see it on restaurant menus and all that kind of stuff that using heirloom tomatoes. What does that mean?
Yeah, so. So my cynical definition is, it's a variety that farmers decided decades ago wasn't worth growing anymore. It's basically I think I would define an heirloom as first of all, it's something that breeds true. So it's not a hybrid. It's old. And it may not taste good. And in fact, so we've screened hundreds of heirlooms, you know, besides the 160, we've tasted probably 500 Different varieties, some heirlooms are awful. I mean, just because it's old, doesn't mean it's good. But so there is no legal definition of an heirloom. But basically, in general, I would say that I would consider heirlooms to be something that's, let's say pre World War Two. Self pollinated, so you can save seeds. And at some point, someone thought it had some properties that were desirable. And that's about it. That's the definition.
Sure. It's become kind of trendy to put on.
Yeah, it's a misnomer.
Well, but on the other hand, right? There was something that's lost, right? So in fact, right, sort of a lot of the better tasting tomatoes. Right?
Yeah, but they're terrible to grow. Right. I mean, this is the thing is that most of the heirloom tomatoes, they don't nobody grows them anymore commercially, because they're terrible to grow. So why low yields the low yields? Issues, no disease resistance survived the harvest process? In some case, yeah, very soft. They're just they just wouldn't cut it today, about the only way that you can grow them as if you're, you know, selling them at a farmers market and you're going to get $6 a pound. And even then it can be challenging.
Yeah, this isn't a phenomenon. Only for tomatoes, certainly ancient grains as an example. Yeah. Of the same sort of thing, the progenitors of modern day trading on the Stiven. Wheat.
Well, yeah, I mean, that's why we've ended up with the varieties we have now. They don't have any flavor, right? It's because we're selecting away from That's right. That's right. We're properties of Yes. Right. Right.
So what we've actually tried to do is to capture that and turn it to our advantage. So one of the things that we've done, we say, well, okay, the commercial tomato market is challenging, we, we, we know how to improve flavor. We need to do that in a package that delivers all of the performance that growers want. But there is an audience out there that's much more receptive and that's the home gardener. And so what we've done is we've taken that knowledge of the home that the heirloom tomatoes and again, you know, we've we've screened hundreds of these we say well okay, what happens if I take the ones the very best tasting ones, and I crossed those to a modern disease resistant high yielding firm variety, what is the what is the hybrid look like. And so we've done that. We've done it with dozens of them. And in a few cases, we've identified lines hybrids that have all of the flavor of the heirloom parent and five times the yield of them. And so we've gotten a few varieties that are just magical. Really, really good. And so we're working with seed companies. Now they're trying several of them. The first two, actually, were just commercialized this year. Congratulations. Yeah, it's exciting. But the home gardeners love us. We actually started a program, we got so many doing things like this interview, we got so many requests for these things that we decided, why don't we set up a system where people can donate to the research, and we'll send them seeds? So we've actually done that we've sent out I think we're up to over 12,000 people now we've sent seeds to.
Wow, and what do you ask from them? Or is this totally Well, direction,
We've asked for a donation of $10. Because that's the minimum, the university will process on a credit.
I was thinking more in terms of tell me any problems you had with it, tell me the weather is related to what you felt?
Well, so this is where we're going. And the reality is we've gotten some real dedicated home gardeners have given us immense feedback. And it's been really useful. They tell us how our varieties do across the country, we've sent them now to all 50 states and 40 countries. And we're getting feedback from people. And so actually, we have just decided to do this in a more formal way. And what we're going to do is to start to use unreleased varieties. And people will agree they'll have to agree to get them that they will provide us with feedback, we recognize that not everybody will do that. But we think we'll get enough. We're going to set up an online system where they can report when they planted them when they harvested their first fruit, any disease problems. And what we're going to do is I'm going to have someone in the lab, my technician is going to if they have problems, like with diseases, send us pictures, and we'll help you diagnose it. If we can't diagnose it, we'll hook you up with your closest extension agent. We want to formalize this in kind of a citizen science kind of yeah.
This is very much what you if you read some of the older documents related to the Extension Service, this was the sort of populist, my deal that they had of including as many people as they possibly could in the process. So congratulations.
Oh, I think it's gonna be really fun. It's gonna be a lot of work. And I can tell you come usually from September through November, I'm getting at least probably five emails a week where people will send me detailed descriptions of what they have done over the season, and how well the bite tomatoes have done. And you know, they'll either say love this one didn't like this one at all. But it all comes together and helps us in order to do the next generation.
Do you ever get sick of tomatoes?
You know, it's funny, I actually don't eat practically any fresh tomatoes. And the problem is that, you know, you have to eat these things on adulterated in order to rate them, right. And you can't even add salt. And I really no longer a big fan of fresh tomatoes. But I eat a lot of processed tomato products, our freezer at home is full of tomato sauce, which we'd all winter.
Yeah, is there a possibility and I'm sort of looping around with the interaction between the food industry and the sort of research, I can see a food company that produces a huge amount of tomato sauce, wanting a flavor company to be able to compound a fresh tomato flavor that they could put into this as as an ingredient. Do you see that as feasible or possible or likely?
So it's kind of funny. So I'll digress just a tiny bit and tell you that the way the citrus industry works, they harvest the oranges, they score, squash them and extract the juice, and then they heat them up very quickly. And all of the flavor volatiles are driven off. They actually collect the flavor volatiles and they add them back. And that's routinely done with orange juice. I have visited some of these big processing places in California and I say, Well, you're not doing that. And they said to me, for tomato They say no, we don't do that. I say why not. And they say, the object here is to drive off water as quickly as possible, and concentrate the product down. They said, if we want flavor, we're going to add basil or oregano. Yes. And so they don't do that. And I am baffled as to why they don't do that. They do not collect those volatiles. The again the citrus industry is a paradigm that says you could do that you could add them back. Now I've seen a lot of recipes for home gardeners, were actually there's a famous guy, actually, you should get him for your podcast, if you ever can, Harold McGee, he wrote a book on the science of cooking. And he actually published a recipe in the New York Times in which he adds back leaves at the very end, because the leaves produce some of the same volatiles that the fruit do, and it adds back flavor. The way that I do it is we just hold back some of our tomato. So we will typically my wife, and I will roast the tomatoes to drive off a lot of the water, put them in the blender and make the sauce and then we'll add in some that haven't been treated in any way at the end to give us that fresh flavor. And that works great. makes a huge difference.
And certainly the hot breeders will breed some hops where they want, yes, volatile hops and others. They want clarity and they want bitter and they'll put them in at different times in the process.
Yeah. It's very, very similar to making craft beers. Yeah, you add the hops again, at the very end that changes the whole complexion. Yeah.
So you're doing this through traditional breeding methods, right? habitation, right. But you come from a genetic engineering background. So tell us about that.
Yeah, so the tragedy is that we probably just can't afford to do the regulatory packages to do this by GMO. I always tell people, you want a great tasting tomato, I could have given it to you five years ago with GMOs. We know the pathways, we know the genes, I know how to manipulate those genes. We've actually done a lot of it experimentally. You know, we do test GMOs and some of our consumer panels to validate some of the work that we've done on the predictions. But we're not gonna sell those things. And I think they're number one is the cost. Number two, a lot of the same people who are so fanatical about flavor are the ones that are most anti GMO. So I say, Hey, you're you wanna you don't want your damn GMOs and eat your crappy tomatoes? It makes no sense. But, but no, we're not doing that. Now, we are thinking quite heavily about gene editing. Because gene editing, at least today in the US, it will not be considered GMO, there are some things the problem with gene editing is at this point, we're really good at taking away stuff, we're not so good at replacing, right. So that's still a problem.
But, gene editing, you're talking about CRISPR technology, it's like that, right? So a little bit about that. For listeners who may not be familiar with what that is, what gene editing is and how that's different than.
So gene editing has the potential to really transform plant breeding. We do use gene editing, not in anything that we've released as a variety, but we use gene editing as a tool. We can go in and we can knock genes out, we can make mutations, and in most cases, we're making mutations in genes that have already been mutated by nature. We're just reproducing what nature has already done. The advantages, we can go into it very quickly. And very precisely. You know, I'll give you a good example. There's a mutation that knocks out the conversion of lycopene to beta carotene, and tomato, that results in a deep red color tomato. They're beautiful. People love them. It's a natural mutation that knocks out this gene. And it's widely used in the industry to give you a deep red tomato. So we know the mutation we know. And so I could take, for example, an heirloom tomato, and I could knock out the same gene with gene editing with CRISPR and make it high lycopene. So it's exactly equivalent to what I could do by traditional breeding, but I can do it in six months. Instead of several years of backcrossing, and fixing all the rest of it, so we are using that technology and we're if the public, I mean, I think we're still in that stage where we don't know what's going to happen, but it would speed up tremendously improving varieties, if we use that. And I'm enthusiastic about it. The government says that it's not going to be regulated, as long as we're doing something that exists in nature.
I've listened to Rob Fraley from Monsanto give talks about how GMO was rolled out to the public. And it was in he, if I remember correctly, he basically said that he wishes they could do it over again, because it would be perceived differently. What do you think is important about gene editing and how it's conveyed to people who aren't familiar with these types of methods so that we don't end up with the same situation that we have with GMO?
So as Rob would have told you, the first thing that that we did wrong when we were at Monsanto was, we focused on producer traits, we were we focused on things that were really important to the farmer. And the consumer didn't see the benefits. We as a society have done a very, very poor job of educating the public about science and about things like risks. How many times have you heard that? Oh, I don't want to fly someplace I'd rather drive right? When you know that statistically, it's far safer to fly. We have not done a good job of explaining it. And so the consumer says, Why should I take this risk, even if it's minimal? When I don't see a benefit directly? The problem is most people don't have any idea where their food comes from. They don't understand that. The BT, the BT gene introduced into corn to fight off insects is safer than spraying it with tons of pesticides. They say, Oh, it's GMO. That's bad. Well, you know, we've been really poor at doing that. I think with CRISPR and genome editing, we have to be careful to make the case that this is identical. We're not doing anything that nature couldn't do itself. So no, no fish, Gene, tomatoes, even though that was never actually done. We're, we're doing things within the species, we're not introducing anything new, that that couldn't be done by nature itself. And I think the first things we have to do are things that the consumers will want. And that's why actually I've been approached by a lot of people about, can you make a tomato that tastes better, that's genome edited, so we can get out there and show that this is something that consumer will really like. And I think that's important.
So the bit about that you've said several times, like we're not going to do anything different than what has already been done in nature, we're just reproducing mutation. How important do you think that differences between sort of, you know, bringing something cross species or something like that? Is that so it's important to, to the consumer in the public, right, because they see it different? Yes. I don't know. Do you think there are any different risks? Right? That happens, like sort of you know, that when you do bring in genes that have not traditionally been right, in the population?
Well, I do think we have to be careful in everything you can, you can make some pretty nasty stuff with traditional breeding. Sure. And we have and there are some good examples of traditionally bred crops that have produced unexpected consequences. But people don't hear about that.
So he said, give some examples.
Oh, there's, I'm trying to remember. Yeah, you do. I'm trying to remember is it celery was the one of the classic ones where they had the high levels of a compound that caused a reaction in people's mouth. Well, I mean, I can give you in the case of tomato, some of the wild relatives of tomato make some really obnoxious glyco alkaloid compounds, they don't taste good, and they're not good for you. I can read those things into tomato and make a tomato that is not very healthy for you, and it would be completely unregulated. And, you know, there are things in green tomatoes that are not good to eat, you know, they go away when the fruit ripen or they're cooked. Those same compounds, the glyco alkaloids. I could put all the glyco alkaloid I wanted into a tomato using traditional breeding and nobody could say anything about it and it could kill you. I mean, it wouldn't kill you. I'm just kidding.
Yeah, except in breeding, you're in traditional breeding. The idea is you're not doing it the breeder is not doing it. It's nature that's doing it and we select. That's right. What nature's right. Yeah, that's the critical scientific difference, right?
I think there have to be regulatory processes. I think we have to look at every product we make, even with genome editing, and make sure we haven't screwed something up. But I think that the public has an easier time with stuff that oh, yeah, there is a natural equivalent of this out there already. I'm not doing anything weird. But to me, the height of hypocrisy is the BT chain. Where, you know, I'm in Well, first of all, I think there's, hopefully I hopefully, I do offend some of your listeners. There's this misnomer that organic is chemical free. And that couldn't be further from the truth. You know, I can spray a field until it's blue with copper, and that's considered organic. I can spray the bacterium that contains the BT, you know, there's, there's only a few different says in the genes between bacillus, thuringiensis, and bacillus, what's the toxic one, I can't remember the name of it. I can spray Bacillus thuringiensis all over your plant. And that's organic. But I take the single gene that has the protein that kills botulism, that's I was gonna say, no, not botulism, nevermind. I can take a single gene out of that organism, put it in the plant, and that suddenly, that's evil. And it's not organic. I think we'd be going a long way. Organic does not necessarily equal sustainable. I mean, to me, the definition of sustainable does not equal organic. And and I think that the organic farmers would be a lot better off if they would drop the, the, the commercial hype, in organic, a large part of organic, the reason that that organic was defined as being GMO free was so that they would capture that group of people who didn't want GMOs. And that, to me is hypocritical. You know, I think we can, if we used certain GMOs in combination with organic practices.
We would be a lot better off using organic methods to get high yields is going to be in many cases worse, like on less sustainable long term, right?
Absolutely, absolutely. You could make organic, a lot more sustainable if you incorporated certain parts of GMO into it. And they won't do it. It's purely marketing.
And that the conflation is people will conflate organic with some kind of quality factor that because it's organic, I ought to be able to taste it, feel it smell it. There's something quality wise, that's different. And that's not it's not true, either.
Yeah. So there's one of the things I think, to really try to understand what this is sort of, you know, people care about things, and they care about important things, right. And people from the scientific community can be very like, wow, right? Organic actually can be way worse in the whole all these different ways, right, sort of the conversation is a really hard one right? To sort of connect up though, like, what do you care about? And let's not get people defensive, either, right? We can offend some of our listeners, but sort of but there's a reason there's something people care about when they say, oh, I want organic food, right? Sure. And again, the key is to then say, right, how do we, how do we pick up on that and talk about how to actually achieve these things? Right? Not necessarily with this particular labor label, especially if it's come from, you know, big, big, you know, farming practices, right?
If is it better to if I'm live on the east coast? Is it better to eat something that was grown locally, non organically or to buy an organic product that was grown in an industrial farm and synchronous and driven cross country? I think I just read an article yesterday about the efforts to ban plastic bags and supermarkets. And someone actually did a study to show that in terms of in the environment, actually, the, the plastic bags are less destructive than than using paper bags effect on climate. Right.
Yeah. Right. So I think but then But then yeah, so that this is a trade off then Right. You know, the trade offs here. What's your effect on the climate in terms of greenhouse gasses versus right, you know, how can we there is an issue with the plastic and the Yeah,
I think in the end, I think a big problem that I have is, people don't trust the government. And, you know, I mean, all of this stuff with the roundup and the things about it causing cancer, this is complete crap. And people need to ask, well, people don't even know what questions to ask is the problem. And I think you have to look at agriculture in a much different way than we are today. And it's not just as simple as everybody grow organic, because if everybody switched organic, we're not going to be able to feed the people on the field. You know, people are going to starve to death. If we switch to organic. There's nothing wrong with organic. You know, it's, an admirable goal. But I think there are trade offs and to say, Oh, I'm doing the right thing by eating organic is not necessarily true. And there are ways to improve it, we need to pay attention. The fact is, the Gulf of Mexico is being polluted by nitrogen runoff that runs down the Missouri and Mississippi River. That's, that's a very real and it's a bad thing. But can we just eliminate nitrogen fertilizers? Not if we want to feed everybody on the planet? So we need to, to me, we need to have a discussion, we need to say what are the priorities? And I think that the people who are the organic people raise important questions about how we should be doing agriculture, but they don't have all the answers.
Is it possible that the degree to which consumers will accept measures that are taken to address problems is sort of related to the severity of it, and I'm thinking of the wine industry, when all the everybody was all vines being wiped out? And they were, what they found was a pretty nasty set of inorganic chemicals that were good at it. And I'm not sure that if people were faced with that today, they would say, okay, that's That's all right. Go ahead and spray that. Like, was it copper sulfate? I think?
Yeah, well, copper. So well, copper sulfates can be used organically.
Yeah, there's some irony to that inorganic compound that can be used organic.
That's right, because it's natural.
Well, I mean, I think part of it is understanding on both sides, right, the consumer and the scientists that really everybody in the end is working towards the same goal, right, of having a healthy, you know, sustainable, that's a loaded term food supply. And there are these evil people unnecessarily out there, although there are some bad actors that are, you know, trying to manipulate the food system, right. I mean, you like you said, when you were working at Monsanto back earlier in your career, the scientists there had good intentions, right? The evil empire, and the people who are trying to, you know, grow organic food or purchase organic food, are trying to do it, because they're trying to do the right thing. Right. So it's ascribing good intent to the majority of people, and then how can we work together as scientists and consumers to make progress?
So yeah, one of the things we have to recognize, though, is sort of there isn't any one goal, right? I mean, so I think that's another trap, we can fall into, Oh, we're all trying to accomplish the same thing. No, I mean, there's trade offs, like even about affects the climate we just talked about, right? Sort of, you know, greenhouse gasses versus pollution, right, you know, nitrogen runoff versus feeding, and there's no, there's no single goal here at all right? And then everybody's got their own interest, of course, right. You know, if you're a grower, right, it's, you know, you care about the economics of, you know, your own family, for example, right, you know, and so, and these things do not always, they cannot be achieved at the same time, this this fact of living in a society. Right. And, and also, like, what are the different goals? I mean, I think we're hearing about sort of a lot of the different ways and there are trade offs. And that's, that's even harder, right, then what you just said, Right?
Sure. Yeah. I mean, I don't think that there's you're never going to satisfy everybody right. But I think you know, having the cheapest, most nutritious, abundant food supply overall. I mean, would I mean that's sort of a panacea right? It's that yeah, that's not gonna happen. Because you like you said, I mean, there are people who are gonna buy that cheap tomato regardless because they don't value the $3 Tomato over the $1 Tomatoes, right. So maybe there isn't one single so it's a good that's a good point. We want to be respectful of your time we know you have a busy schedule we really appreciate you taking you know close to an hour to talk to us if there were people listening who want to get involved with your tomato program what would be the best way for them to get in touch.
Oh, you can just google me and tomatoes and you'll probably get to our webpage
and I will put some links to your lab page.
Yeah, yeah. Anything else you'd like to say before we end?
I think you, what you said at the end is variable. portant to me, you know, we're all in this together. And I think we've become a very polarized society. And what we see with the federal government today is very similar in science. You know, this is the same phenomenon as vaccinations. There's some bad information out there and there's some very polarizing people and I don't know what the answers are, but we've got to try and bridge the gaps.
This has been a great conversation.
Thanks for the time and you're very welcome.
If you have any questions or comments you would like to share check out our website at https://www.k-state.edu/research/global-food/ and drop us an email.
Our music was adapted from Dr. Wayne Goins’s album Chronicles of Carmela. Special thanks to him for providing that to us. Something to Chew On is produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University.