Farmers could soon be growing tomatoes bunched like grapes in a storage unit, on the roof of a skyscraper, or even in space. That's if a clutch of new gene-edited crops can prove as fruitful as the first batch. The primary goal of this new research is to engineer a wider variety of crops that can be grown in urban environments or other places not suitable for plant growth, according to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory professor Zach Lippman, who leads a lab that has designed what they are calling urban agriculture tomatoes.
By making crops and harvests shorter, Lippman believes that agriculture can reach new heights.
"I can tell you that NASA scientists have expressed some interest in our new tomatoes," he said.
In a paper recently published in Nature Biotechnology, Lippman and colleagues detail how they introduced three distinct mutations into tomatoes to create these new types of plants.
Lippman's lab revealed that fine tuning the self pruning (SP) and SP5G genes can cause a plant to stop growing and flower and fruit earlier, creating a compact plant that can be harvested quickly.
These new gene-edited tomato plants look nothing like the long vines you 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 They resemble a bouquet whose roses have been replaced by ripe cherry tomatoes.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. And you can eat them.
"They have a great small shape and size, they taste good, but of course that all depends on personal preference," Lippman said.
Most importantly, they're eco-friendly.
"This demonstrates how we can produce crops in new ways, without having to tear up the land as much or add excessive fertilizer that runs off into rivers and streams," Lippman said. "Here's a complementary approach to help feed people, locally and with a reduced carbon footprint."
The catch is that urban setups call for compact plants that can be slotted or stacked into tight spaces, such as converted storage containers. To make up for crop yield constrained by limited space, urban farms also operate year-round to produce crops that can be quickly harvested again and again.
Searching for more tools, Lippman's team recently discovered the gene SIER. Modifying SIER with the CRISPR gene editing tool and combining it with the other tuned genes created these extremely compact plants.