A plant scientist from The University of Nottingham has played a key role in the sequencing of the tomato genome.
Professor Graham Seymour, from the School of Biosciences, is among a group of over 300 scientists from 14 countries that has sequenced the genomes of the domesticated tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) and its wild ancestor, Solanum pimpinellifolium.
This achievement, by The Tomato Genome Consortium (TGC), will help breeders to identify important tomato genes allowing them to deliver new varieties more quickly and efficiently. The results of the sequencing projects are reported in this week’s issue of Nature.
The genomes will help breeders to deliver tomatoes with beneficial traits like improved taste and higher concentrations of nutrients, like lycopene, which are believed to have health benefits. Having the genome sequence could also lower costs by helping us develop tomatoes that are better equipped to combat the pathogens, droughts and diseases that plague growers. Developing better tomatoes will help to ensure global food security.
The not so humble tomato
The market for tomatoes is worth around £625 million a year in the UK alone1 but, by benefitting breeders of other crops in the Solanaceae family like potatoes, peppers and aubergines, the genome could be more valuable still.
Graham Seymour, Professor of Biotechnology, and co-author and co-leader of the BBSRC funded research team in the UK, said: “Tomatoes are one of the most important fruit crops in the world, both in terms of the volume that we eat and the vitamins, minerals and other phytochemicals that both fresh and processed tomato products provide to our diets. The tomato is also the model plant we use to investigate the process of fruit ripening, so understanding this genome will help us unravel the molecular circuits that make tomato and other fruits ripen and give them their health promoting properties.”
How the sequencing was done
Initially, the UK contribution to the project focused on chromosome 4, one of the 12 chromosomes which contain the tomato’s genes. The UK team produced high quality sequence which set the standard for other chromosomes being sequenced around the world. Thanks to international collaboration and the adoption of new technologies the final assembled sequence is of outstanding quality and coverage making it a powerful and readily accessible tool for crop improvement.
The UK effort was led by researchers at The University of Nottingham and Imperial College London in collaboration with leading scientists at The Genome Analysis Centre, the James Hutton Institute, the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Natural History Museum. The project was funded in the UK by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Defra and the Scottish Government and the sequencing was undertaken by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.
What can we learn from sequencing the tomato genome?
Dr Gerard Bishop, former Reader of Plant Biology at Imperial College London, who co-led the UK research with Professor Seymour, said: “The publication of the tomato genome sequence has been eagerly anticipated both by the international research community and by tomato growers and breeders worldwide. Coordinating the efforts of over 300 scientists across 14 countries has been a considerable achievement in which the UK has played an important role, and the outcomes of this effort are already having an impact on the global research effort to deliver better tomatoes.”
Together, the sequences provide the most detailed look yet at the functional portions of the tomato genome, revealing the order, orientation, types and relative positions of all of its 35,000 genes. The sequences will help researchers uncover the relationships between tomato genes and the characteristics they encode. They will broaden the understanding of how genetic and environmental factors interact to determine the health and viability of this important fruit crop. Tomato is a member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, and the new sequences are expected to provide reference points helpful for identifying the most beneficial genes in tomato’s Solanaceae relatives. This includes potato, pepper, eggplant and petunia and as such is the world’s most important vegetable plant family in terms of both economic value and production volume. Plants of the Solanaceae family serve as sources of food, spices and medicines.
The sequences also offer insight into how the tomato and its relatives have diversified and adapted to new environments. They show that the tomato genome expanded abruptly about 60 million years ago, but subsequently, most of this genetic redundancy was lost. Some of the genes generated during that expansion were involved in the development and control of the ripening process and so are of interest to tomato breeders.
The genome sequences will also allow researchers to probe more deeply into why humans have been able to domesticate some plants and not others. This could be useful in one day helping us to use a wider variety of plant species for food than the few which we currently rely on.
Professor Jane Rogers, Director of The Genome Analysis Centre, worked on the sequence whilst at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. She said: “The UK team made important contributions with physical maps, clone-based sequencing of chromosome 4 and sharing knowledge through training provision for other international partners. The international collaboration was key to the project and helped to establish the high standard for the highly usable sequence that we have today.”
The tomato now joins a growing number of crop plants with genome sequences available for plant researchers that include rice, maize, sorghum, poplar, potato, soybean, strawberry cucumber and grape.
Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of BBSRC said: “This is a great achievement. As this project shows, advances in technology and computing are knocking years off the time it takes to sequence even a complicated organism like a tomato plant. This is very exciting as it will allow us to equip breeders with the tools they need to deliver increased yields of better crops, and to do so sustainably.”
About the Tomato Genome Consortium
The TGC was established as a result of a scientific conference organized in 2003 in Washington, DC. Consortium members include scientists from Argentina, Belgium, China, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The genome sequence and related resources can be accessed at the Solgenomics website (http://solgenomics.net) and at http://mips.helmholtz-muenchen.de/plant/tomato/index.jsp. The genome sequences have been deposited at NCBI (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/genome/).
On publication, this paper will be freely available at: www.nature.com/nature/journal/v485/n7400/full/nature11119.html
Images of Professor Seymour and Dr Bishop are available on request through The University of Nottingham Communications Department.
The Nature front cover image is courtesy of Nature.
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More information is available from Professor Graham Seymour, at The University of Nottingham, firstname.lastname@example.org; or BBSRC External Relations Mike Davies, BBSRC External Relations on +44 (0) 1793 414 694, email@example.com; or Lindsay Brooke, Media Relations Manager at The University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 951 5751.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond. Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk
Imperial College London is consistently rated amongst the world’s best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment — underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture — www.imperial.ac.uk
The James Hutton Institute was formed in 2011 by the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute in Aberdeen and SCRI, the Scottish Crop Research Institute based in Invergowrie near Dundee, Scotland. The Institute encompasses a distinctive range of integrated, world-class strengths in land, crop, water, environmental and socio-economic science. It undertakes a wide range of research for customers including the Scottish and UK Governments, the EU and other organisations worldwide. The institute has a staff of nearly 600 and 125 PhD students — www.hutton.ac.uk
About the University of East Anglia (UEA)
The University of East Anglia (UEA) is ranked in the top one per cent of universities in the world and is consistently in the top 10 for student satisfaction. It is a leading member of the Norwich Research Park, one of Europe’s biggest concentrations of researchers in the fields of environment, health and plant science. www.uea.ac.uk.
The University of Nottingham, described by The Sunday Times University Guide 2011 as ‘the embodiment of the modern international university’, has 42,000 students at award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is also the most popular university in the UK by 2012 application numbers, and ‘the world’s greenest university’. It is ranked in the UK’s Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings.
More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise. The University aims to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health. The University won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2011, for its research into global food security.
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