Modern Tomatoes Are Very Different From Their Wild Ancestors – and We Found Missing Links in Their Evolution
By Hamid Razifard and Ana Caicedo
The Big Idea: The tomato's path from wild plant to household staple is much more complex than researchers have long thought.
For many years, scientists believed that humans domesticated the tomato in two major phases. First, native people in South America cultivated blueberry-sized wild tomatoes about 7,000 years ago to breed a plant with a cherry-sized fruit. Later, people in Mesoamerica bred this intermediate group further to form the large cultivated tomatoes that we eat today.
But in a recent study, we show that the cherry-sized tomato likely originated in Ecuador around 80,000 years ago. No human groups were domesticating plants that long ago, so this implies that it started as a wild species, although people in Peru and Ecuador probably cultivated it later.
We also found that two subgroups from this intermediate group spread northward to Central America and Mexico, possibly as weedy companions to other crops. As this happened, their fruit traits changed radically. They came to look more like wild plants, with smaller fruits than their South American counterparts and higher levels of citric acid and beta carotene.
We were surprised to find that modern cultivated tomatoes seem most closely related to this wild-like tomato group, which is still found in Mexico, although farmers don't deliberately cultivate it.
Average fruit size in the cultivated tomato in comparison with its semi-domesticated and fully wild relatives. Hamid Razifard, CC BY-ND
Why it matters: This research has direct implications for crop improvement. For example, some intermediate tomato groups have high levels of glucose, which makes the fruit sweeter. Breeders could use those plants to make cultivated tomatoes more attractive to consumers.
We also saw signals that some varieties in this intermediate group had traits that promoted disease resistance and drought tolerance. Those plants could be used to breed hardier tomatoes.
What still isn't known: We don't know how the intermediate group of tomatoes spread from South America to Central America and Mexico. Birds may have eaten the fruits and excreted the seeds elsewhere, or humans may have cultivated or traded them.
Another question is why this intermediate group "regressed" and lost so many domestication traits once it spread north. Natural selection in new northern habitats may have actively favored tomatoes with more wild-like traits. It also could be that humans weren't breeding these plants and selecting for domestication traits, such as large fruits, which may require plants to use more energy than they would put into fruiting naturally.
How we do our work: We reconstruct tomato history by sequencing the genomes of wild, intermediate and domesticated tomato varieties. We also carry out population genomic analyses, in which we use models and statistics to deduce the changes that have occurred to tomatoes over time.
This work involves writing a lot of computer codes to analyze large amounts of data and look at patterns of variation in DNA sequences. We also work with other scientists to grow tomato samples and record data on many traits, such as fruit size, sugar content, acid content and flavor compounds.
What else is happening in the field: Feeding a growing human population will require improving crop yields and quality. To do this, scientists need to know more about plant genes that are involved in phenomena such as fruit development and flavor and disease resistance.
For example, research led by Zachary Lippman at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York is using genome editing to manipulate traits that can help improve tomato yield. By tweaking genes native to two popular varieties of tomato plants, they have devised a rapid method to make the plants flower and produce ripe fruit more quickly. This means more plantings per growing season, which increases yield. It also means that the plant can be grown in latitudes more northerly than currently possible – an important attribute as the earth's climate warms.
What's next for you: Our research provides an atlas of candidates for future tomato gene function studies. We now can identify which genes were important at each stage of domestication history, and discover what they do. We also can search for beneficial alleles, or variants of specific genes, that may have been lost or diminished as the tomato was domesticated. We want to find out whether some of those lost variants could be used to improve growth and desirable traits in cultivated tomatoes.
Hamid Razifard is a postdoctoral researcher in biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Ana Caicedo is an associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Disclosure statement: Hamid Razifard receives funding from National Science Foundation of USA. Ana Caicedo receives funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the USA and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) of the USA.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Michael Svoboda
The enduring pandemic will make conventional forms of travel difficult if not impossible this summer. As a result, many will consider virtual alternatives for their vacations, including one of the oldest forms of virtual reality – books.
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By Julia Conley
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By Beth Ann Mayer
Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.
How to Rock Your Walk<p>Walking isn't just fun and healthy. It's accessible.</p><p>"Walking is cheap," says Dr. John Paul H. Rue, a sports medicine doctor at <a href="https://mdmercy.com/" target="_blank">Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore</a>. "You can do it anywhere at any time; [it] requires little to no special equipment and has many of the same cardio benefits as running or other more intense workouts."</p><p>Want to up your walking game? Try the tips below.</p>
Use Hand Weights<p>Cardio and strength training can go hand-in-hand when you add weights to your walk.</p><p>A <a href="https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2019/03000/Associations_of_Resistance_Exercise_with.14.aspx" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that weight training is good for your heart, and <a href="https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(17)30167-2/abstract" target="_blank">research</a> shows it reduces the risk of developing a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/nutrition-metabolism-disorders" target="_blank">metabolic disorder</a> by 17 percent. People with metabolic disorders have a higher chance of being diagnosed with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.</p><p>Rue suggests not carrying weights for your entire walk.</p><p>"Hand weights can give you an added level of energy burning, but you have to be careful with these because carrying [them] over a long period of time or while walking could actually lead to some overuse injuries," he says.</p>
Make It a Circuit<p>As another option, consider doing a circuit. First, put a pair of dumbbells on your lawn or somewhere in your home. Walk around the block once, then stop and do some bicep curls and tricep lifts before walking around the block again.</p><p>Rue recommends <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/running-with-weights" target="_blank">avoiding ankle weights</a> during cardio workouts, as they force you to use your quadriceps rather than hamstrings. They can also cause muscle imbalance, according to the <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/wearable-weights-how-they-can-help-or-hurt" target="_blank">Harvard Health Letter</a>.</p>
Find a Fitness Trail<p>Strength training isn't limited to weights. You can get stronger by <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/bodyweight-workout" target="_blank">simply using your body</a>.</p><p>Often found at parks, fitness trails are obstacle courses with equipment for pullups, pushups, rowing, and stretches to build upper and lower body strength.</p><p>Try searching "fitness trails near me" online, checking out your local parks and recreation website, or calling the municipal office to <a href="https://calisthenics-parks.com/" target="_blank">find one</a>.</p>
Recruit a Friend<p>People who workout together stay healthy together.</p><p><a href="https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-017-0584-3" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that older adults who exercised with a group improved or maintained their functional health and enjoyed their lives more.</p><p>Enlist the help of a walking buddy with a regimen you aspire to have. If you don't know anyone in your area, apps like <a href="https://www.strava.com/" target="_blank">Strava</a> have social networking features so you can get support from fellow exercisers.</p>
Try Meditation<p>According to the <a href="https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/nhis/2017" target="_blank">2017 National Health Interview Survey</a>, published by the National Institutes of Health, meditation is on the rise, and for good reason.</p><p>Researchers <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29616846/" target="_blank">found</a> that mind-body relaxation practices can regulate inflammation, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/biological-rhythms" target="_blank">circadian rhythms</a>, and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/glucose" target="_blank">glucose</a> metabolism, as well as lower <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/high-blood-pressure-hypertension" target="_blank">blood pressure</a>.</p><p>"Any form of exercise can be turned into a meditation of some type, either by the surroundings you are walking in, like a park or trail, or by blocking out the outside world with music on your headphones," Rue says.</p><p>You can also play a podcast or download an app like <a href="https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app" target="_blank">Headspace</a> that has a library of guided meditations to practice while you walk.</p>
Do Fartlek Walks<p>Typically used in running, fartlek intervals alternate periods of increased and decreased speed. These are <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-hiit" target="_blank">high-intensity interval training (HIIT)</a> workouts, which allow exercisers to accomplish more in less time.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0154075" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that 10-minute interval training improved <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/metabolic-syndrome" target="_blank">cardiometabolic</a> health, or lowered the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, just as well as working out at a continuous pace for 50 minutes.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111489" target="_blank">Research</a> also shows that HIIT workouts increase muscle <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fast-twitch-muscles" target="_blank">oxidative</a> capacity, or the ability to use oxygen. To do a fartlek walk, try walking at an increased pace for 3 minutes, slow down for 2 minutes, and repeat.</p>
Gradually Increase Pace<p>A faster walking pace is associated with a lower risk of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/copd" target="_blank">chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)</a> and respiratory diseases, according to a <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30303933/" target="_blank">2019 study</a>.</p><p>Still, it's best not to go from a stroll to an Olympic-worthy power walk in a day. Instead, increase your pace gradually to prevent injury.</p><p>"Start by walking at a brisk pace for about 10 minutes per day, 3 to 5 days per week," Rue says. "Once you've done this for a few weeks, increase your time by 5 to 10 minutes per day until you get to 30 minutes."</p>
Add Stairs<p>You've likely heard that taking the stairs instead of an elevator is a way to add more movement into your daily routine. It's also a way to step up your walking. Stair climbing has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335519301123?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">decrease the risk of mortality</a> and can easily add a bit more challenge to your walk.</p><p>If you don't have stairs in your home, you can often find them outside a local municipal building, train station, or at a high school stadium.</p>
Is Your Walk a True Cardio Workout?<p>Not all walks are equal. A walk that's too leisurely may not provide enough burn to qualify as cardio. To see if you're getting a good workout, try to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-check-heart-rate" target="_blank">measure your heart rate</a> using a monitor.</p><p>"A target goal for a good walking workout heart rate is about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate," Rue says, adding that maximum heart rate is <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/fat-burning-heart-rate" target="_blank">typically calculated</a> by 220 beats per minute minus your age.</p><p>You can also monitor how easily you can carry on a conversation while you walk to gauge your heart rate.</p><p>"If you can walk and carry on a normal conversation, that's probably a lower intensity walk," says Rue. "If you are slightly breathless but can still have a conversation, that's probably a moderate workout. If you are out of breath and can't talk normally, that's a vigorous workout."</p>
Takeaway<p>By shaking up your routine, you can add excitement to your workout and reap even more rewards than a basic walk provides. Increasing the pace and intensity of a workout will make it more effective.</p><p>Simply pick your favorite variation to add some spice to your next walk.</p>
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