Something is amiss about the flavor of tomatoes these days. If you're accustomed to today's supermarket tomato, perhaps you haven't noticed. But your taste buds are unwittingly being deprived of flavors that your great grandparents once relished.

We may have an opportunity to return the tomato to its former flavor glory, however. Harry Klee, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, is working to identify the key chemical elements that give tomatoes their pop, with the ultimate aim of engineering the ubiquitous fruit to once again taste like it did 100 years ago, reports

"We're just fixing what has been damaged over the last half century to push them back to where they were a century ago, taste-wise," said Klee. "We can make the supermarket tomato taste noticeably better."

Klee wants to make clear that he's not interested in genetic modification. He wants to employ the methodology of classical genetics, to restore tomato flavors by breeding them the old fashioned way. First though, he had to identify exactly what it is that has changed about their flavor.

The answer lies in alleles

Klee's team looked at the chemical underpinnings of how our olfactory sense works when we taste a tomato. What should we expect from the sugar content of these fruits? Which volatile chemicals are critical to better flavor? The team then analyzed the genetics behind the production of these chemicals, and were able to identify several alleles — or genetic variations — that have been unintentionally bred out of many modern tomato varieties that control for flavor.

"We wanted to identify why modern tomato varieties are deficient in those flavor chemicals," Klee said. "It's because they have lost the more desirable alleles of a number of genes."

The research, which appeared the journal Science, made use of a genome-wide assessment study to map out the key genes at play, which should make it possible to focus in on these traits and efficiently pinpoint them in breeding programs. Because Klee doesn't want to go the route of genetic modification, it's estimated that it will take breeders about three to four years to get tomatoes back to where they once were in regards to flavor.

So if you're a tomato-lover, it will require a modicum of patience. But the wait will be worth it. In just a few years, you might get the chance to fall in love with the tomato all over again.

Tomatoes tasted much better 100 years ago. Can their flavor be restored?
Researchers at the University of Florida and beyond analyze how tomato flavors have changed over time.