By identifying genes responsible for important crop traits, participants in the three-year project believe the tomato genome could lead to new and improved tomato varieties.
Led by researchers from Imperial College London, University of Warwick and the Scottish Crop Research Institute, the UK team is part of an international effort to develop a reference genome sequence for the plant family Solanaceae, to which the tomato belongs, along with other widely consumed crops - aubergines, paprika and the potato.
"For the first time, by accessing the immense natural variation in the gene pool, we will be able to produce new and improved varieties through conventional breeding programmes," said Dr Graham Seymour, co-leader of the project at the University of Warwick's horticultural research arm.
The 12 chromosomes present in tomato have been allocated to 10 international teams for sequencing, as part of the overarching International Solanaceae Genome Project. The British Team led by Imperial and Warwick will examine the gene rich regions of tomato chromosome 4.
Tomatoes are known to contain the health-boosting antioxidant lycopene, a carotenoid that has attracted significant attention in recent years as it has been linked in some research to reduced risk for cancers, especially prostate cancer. New findings also suggest that it could have a protective effect on heart disease, the cause of more deaths among women than any other disease.
The lycopene market is expanding significantly, with growth rates forecast at over 100 per cent in a recent report on the carotenoids market from Frost & Sullivan. The report values the ingredient at $34 million (€27.6m) in 2003, and with growing demand, new sources of the nutrient will attempt to lift this figure further.
Earlier this year scientists at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in the UK and Institute of Food Research (IFR) in Norwich, UK identified the gene - HQT - as the producer of the powerhouse antioxidant chlorogenic acid (CGA) that protects the tomato against stress and disease.
They found that by increasing the activity of HQT, CGA levels in the tomato fruits were lifted, helping to protect them against attack from bacterial disease. CGA could also protect humans eating the tomatoes against degenerative, age-related diseases, the scientists purport.
"CGA is the main polyphenol in this category in tomatoes. Now we have identified the gene for the enzyme that produces it, we can look for genes that produce similar compounds in other plants, with benefits for agriculture and for human nutrition," said Dr Tony Michael, project leader at IFR.
Knocked by over production in 1999-2000, the global tomato processing industry has seen prices tumble in recent years, a situation that is only now just starting to improve. But growing competition from China - now the third largest producer although 10 years ago a small player, has also diluted prices.
AMITOM, the Mediterranean International Association of the Tomato Processing recently told FoodNavigator.com that prices in the US and Europe were coming in at $50 to $60 a ton, compared to about $30 a ton from China. California is currently the largest tomato processor, followed by Italy and the new kid on the block, China.
In Europe, 8.5 million tons of tomatoes are cultivated annually with 1.5 million tons sold directly to the consumer and 7 million are processed for products such as ketchup and sauces.