Shape-Shifting Fruits and Veggies

  • van der Knaap's team tests tomato starts for the SUN gene - the gene they isolated. SUN is responsible for tomato length. (Photo by Julie Grant)

Vegetables can be really odd shapes.
But what if you could alter fruits
and vegetables into just about any
shape you wanted? Some avid gardeners
come up with strange looking hybrids,
but Julie Grant talked with a researcher
who’s taking the shape of produce to
a whole new level:


It’s time to start planting your garden this year. But maybe you’re tired of long, thin
carrots, huge watermelons, and round tomatoes. Julie Grant spoke with one researcher
who’s trying to give us some more options in the shape of fruits and veggies:

Ester van der Knaap steps gingerly around the greenhouse.

We’re at the Ohio State Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster.
The plants here are as tall as we are.

Van Der Knaap points out short, round tomatoes – and some odd-looking long, thin

“That’s one gene. One gene can make that difference.”

Van der Knaap’s team discovered that gene and isolated it. They call it the SUN gene.
And they’ve been able to clone it in tomatoes.

“You see this one is pretty round. It does not have the SUN gene. And that first one
makes a very elongated fruit, and it does have the SUN gene.”

Van der Knaap’s research could lead to square-shapes – something she thinks the
tomato industry might like. Square tomatoes fit better into packages. And, overall,
square tomatoes might be easier to work with than the common round tomatoes.

“They are mechanically harvested. So if you have a very round tomato, it would roll off
conveyor belts, it’s not very handy.”

So far money for her research has come from the National Science Foundation – not big

Van Der Knaap is quick to note – her tomatoes are not genetically modified.

You might remember the Calgene tomato which was made firmer by manipulating the
tomato genes with a gene from chickens. Van der Knapp’s just isolating the genes that affect the
shape of the tomatoes. Turning them on or off alters the shape.

Designer fruit shapes are gaining popularity. Check out any seed catalog, and there’s
a huge variety – some large and segmented, some pear-shaped, some oval, some
resembling chili peppers.

People have been cross-breeding tomatoes to make the shapes they want for a long
time. But this is not the same thing.

“It’s just funny, ‘cause my brother was working with some genetic things with tomatoes in
our attic.”

Dick Alford is a chef and professor of hospitality management at the University of Akron.

The difference between what his brother – and lots of other folks have been doing – and
what van der Knaap is doing is the difference between cross-breeding and locating a
specific gene that affects the shape of tomatoes.

The only other gene like this that’s been found so far was discovered by van der Knaap’s
advisor at Cornell University.

[sound of a kitchen and cutting veggies]

Chef Alford watches students as they cut yellow crookneck squash and carrots.

They’re trying to make uniform, symmetrical shapes out of curvy and pointed vegetables.
There’s a lot of waste. Chef Alford hates to see so much get thrown away. So he’s got
a request of Dr. van der Knaap.

“If we could get square carrots, it would be great. If you could get a nice long, a tomato
as long as a cucumber, where you could get 20 or 30 slices out of it, it would be great.”

In a country that loves hamburgers, Van der Knaap has heard that request before. But
the long, thin tomato hasn’t worked out just yet. She says there’s more genetics to be

Once we know all the genes responsible for making different shapes in tomatoes, Van
der Knaap says we’ll have a better idea of what controls the shape of other crops, such
peppers, cucumbers, and gourds.

And maybe then we’ll get those square carrots.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

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