Gatorbytes Behind-the-Story: Building a Better Tomato

Gatorbytes_SPRING2015_BetterTomotoIn April, the University of Florida and the University Press of Florida launched Gatorbytes, a digital book series following the innovative research taking place at UF. Intended to pique the interests of the intellectually curious and to share the stories behind the discoveries being made at UF, the books are written by professional journalists. 

“They know how to take complex material, break it down into manageable chunks and tell a story,” says Meredith Babb, director of the University Press of Florida.

We’re taking a closer look at each of the works in the Gatorbytes series to spotlight the journalists working to share these amazing projects and to offer even more behind-the-scenes information about the groundbreaking research.

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In Building a Better Tomato: The Quest to Perfect “The Scandalous Fruit,” Jeff Klinkenberg expertly depicts the daily lives and innovations of horticultural scientist Harry Klee and renowned taste researcher Linda Bartoshuk.

Klinkenberg, who started in journalism when he was 16, has written about Florida culture for decades. He is the author of numerous books, including Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators and Seasons of Real Florida. We interviewed him to ask about his experience writing the piece:

UPF: Before writing this story, how much did you know about tomato breeding?

Klinkenberg: I didn’t know much about tomato breeding but I have always been interested in gardening and especially eating what I have managed to salvage from Florida’s voracious insects.

UPF: How did you piece together the stories of all the people involved?

Klinkenberg: I spent about three days with them and read everything I could about their work, tomato science and tomato lore. It was a peek into a new universe for me. Good writers are always good students. We’re excited about learning something new.

UPF: How did your own childhood memories of eating garden tomatoes affect your appreciation for what Harry Klee and Linda Bartoshuk do?

Klinkenberg: When I was boy, our neighbors in back of us grew all kinds of things. They inspired me and they spoiled me with fresh produce, especially tomatoes. I’m a tomato fiend. I eat them every day, always hoping that I am going to sink my teeth into something delicious. When will I ever learn? I live in a townhouse now and don’t have a garden, which means I usually have to rely on the supermarket. I’m usually disappointed. So I was thrilled to hear about Harry Klee and his partner in tomato glory, Linda Bartoshuk.

UPF: It’s clear that you spent a lot of time getting to know Klee and Bartoshuk. As a journalist, why do you think it’s important to learn the personalities of your interviewees?

Klinkenberg: As a writer, I’m as ambitious as humanly possible. I want every reader—not just scientists and farmers—to read my stories to the end. That means I try to invest my stories with the human dimension that hopefully will make a piece of writing accessible to the widest audience.

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As Klinkenberg shares in the piece, Harry Klee has been breeding tomatoes in an effort to make a better tasting industrial tomato. Klee says that the taste of a tomato depends on volatiles, or what Klinkenberg aptly describes as “aroma chemicals.” On the Klee Lab website, “A Taste of Flavor Research” details precisely what these volatiles are and how they work. With the help of his lab members, Klee’s dedicated to figuring out just how to grow a supermarket-friendly tomato that tastes delicious. Among his many efforts, he has completed various trials and obtained taste scores for different varieties of heirloom tomatoes and has shared those scores here. You can even take part in the research by requesting seeds from Klee in return for a donation to the research project.

Klee’s work on tomatoes has attracted national attention. In an interview with NPRhe explains that what he’s doing isn’t genetic engineering, but traditional breeding of tomato plants that are taste-tested to find out what components the tastiest tomatoes contain. “You almost have, essentially [an] orchestra that has to come together and all play together in order to make that tomato flavor,” Klee remarks.

On NPR’s Here and Now, Klee explains that making a delicious tomato that can withstand commercial shipping to supermarkets is important because people want to eat tomatoes all year round, and not just when they’re in season. “We have to capture flavor in the context of something that’s just as productive as is the current tasteless variety that they’re growing right now,” Klee explains. “That’s much more of a challenge, and that’s where we really put the bulk of our effort.”

The University of Florida presented the video below as a behind-the-scenes look at the lab work. In it, Klee shares his hope that a better tasting tomato will be a more frequently eaten one.

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An expert on taste, Linda Bartoshuk contributes a great deal to Klee’s work on tomato breeding. Nicknamed the “Queen of Taste,” Bartoshuk is the Director of Psychophysical Research at the UF Center for Smell and Taste. Among the roles she plays in Klee’s research, one is finding taste-testers—particularly supertasters, or people with a lot of tastebuds. “Over the years Bartoshuk assembled an army of 200 volunteers to sample Harry Klee’s tomatoes,” Klinkenberg writes.

In an interview with the National Academy of Sciences, Bartoshuk talks about how she accidentally became involved in taste research after a childhood dreaming about becoming an astronomer. It was only after signing up for a psychology course that she found the path to becoming an experimental psychologist, which has allowed her to treat taste disorders.

She talks about taste disorders, among other aspects of her research, in this PBS Ask the Scientists segment.

In the below video, “Test Your Tongue: The Science of Taste,” Bartoshuk reveals how we can learn about our own taste buds.

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If you haven’t already, then take a look at Jeff Klinkenberg’s Building a Better Tomato for the full story about Klee and Bartoshuk’s collaboration on building a superior alternative to bland and mealy grocery-store tomatoes. The book, one of the first in the Gatorbytes series, is free to read for a limited time.

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