Story at a glance

  • By genetically modifying cherry tomatoes, scientists have created a compact version of the plant that grows short stems with clusters of bright red fruit.
  • The tweaked tomato can produce more food in a smaller amount of space and also grows faster than typical varieties.
  • The changes could make the plants more suitable to cramped futuristic applications like indoor farming or even space travel.

Using the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, scientists have created a new cherry tomato plant that bears its fruit in tight clusters on short vines. This new look isn’t just for show — taking up less real estate will make these tomatoes more suitable for futuristic applications like indoor farming and even space travel, Popular Mechanics reports

To achieve the grape-like bunches, researchers tweaked three genes in the cherry tomato’s DNA. Two of the genes control how much the plant grows and when it flowers and fruits. When scientists altered these first two genes alone, the resulting plant produced just a few icky-tasting tomatoes on shortened stems. But once the researchers identified the third gene they were able to get the tasty red fruits in abundant bunches. 

Not only is this compact version of the cherry tomato a boon for futuristic applications where space is at a premium, they also grow faster. In just around 40 days, future astronauts and urban farmers would have ready-to-harvest fruit.

"This demonstrates how we can produce crops in new ways, without having to tear up the land as much or add excessive fertilizer that runs off into rivers and streams," plant biologist Zach Lippman of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory said in a statement. "Here's a complementary approach to help feed people, locally and with a reduced carbon footprint."

More than 500 million people now live on degraded lands due to deforestation, changing weather patterns and depleted soils — brought on by climate change and excessive cultivation. This could push agriculture indoors, especially as urban areas become larger and more densely populated.

Investment and interest in indoor vertical farming is growing, but in order to maximize its potential benefits some plants need to be molded to fit its tight physical constraints. This new tomato could be among the first in a new group of plants designed to quickly produce lots of food while making an efficient use of space. Next, the researchers think the kiwi could be worth tinkering with for improved indoor growth.

Published on Dec 30, 2019