Posted: July 12, 2018

If you're in love with the idea of sweet, firm, antioxidant-rich--and award-winning--tomatoes that will perform well in your garden, a researcher in the College of Agricultural Sciences has just the variety for you.

Majid Foolad, professor of plant genetics, center, discusses his tomato breeding program with Mengyuan "Maggie" Jia, doctoral candidate in plant biology, left, and Jonathan Bonfiglio, master's degree candidate in horticulture.

Majid Foolad, professor of plant genetics, center, discusses his tomato breeding program with Mengyuan "Maggie" Jia, doctoral candidate in plant biology, left, and Jonathan Bonfiglio, master's degree candidate in horticulture.

Valentine, a grape tomato that germinated in the breeding program of a plant scientist, is now available commercially after nearly two decades in development. Majid Foolad, a professor of plant genetics, partnered with plant breeders at Johnny's Selected Seeds to launch the variety, which was introduced in Johnny's 2018 seed catalog.

Attesting to its quality, Valentine was named an All-America Selections (AAS) winner for 2018 by a panel of professional, independent judges throughout North America, who "hands-down agreed this was the most appealing grape tomato they trialed," according to the AAS website.

For Foolad, Valentine represents a milestone: it's the first commercial variety released by his tomato genetics and breeding program, which began when he arrived at Penn State in 1994.

Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable crop in the world and the second largest in Pennsylvania after sweet corn, Foolad noted. As he worked with commercial tomato growers in the state to determine what plant traits were most important to them, it became apparent that growers' biggest challenge was plant disease. So he started looking at resistance to diseases such as early blight, the most common foliar disease of tomato in Pennsylvania and the Northeast.

At the same time, he wanted to improve fruit quality traits. "Consumers often seem to complain about the tomatoes they buy in the supermarket," which breeders may have developed to prioritize shelf life rather than flavor.

To find tomatoes with desirable characteristics, Foolad tapped gene banks at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other research organizations for germplasm from wild varieties, then crossed them with cultivated varieties in an effort to incorporate those traits into new inbred lines and hybrids. He found one "accession," or genetic line, that had four to five times more lycopene--a powerful antioxidant that gives tomatoes their deep-red color--than cultivated varieties.

"That accession also showed some disease resistance, so I started to focus heavily on that one," he said. "We identified genes that controlled high fruit lycopene content, and we were able to characterize and patent that trait."

As his program evolved, Foolad developed several lines that displayed an assortment of desirable traits, and all of these lines produced high fruit lycopene content. While attending scientific conferences to present his research findings, Foolad was approached by plant breeders from Johnny's Selected Seeds, who were interested in evaluating some of his new breeding material.

In 2009, he provided Johnny's with seeds for three inbred lines of grape tomato. One of those Penn State lines subsequently was crossed with one of Johnny's lines, and the variety that would become Valentine was born. By 2017, Valentine--with its high lycopene content, disease resistance, high yield, and sweet, firm fruit--emerged as the most desirable hybrid for commercialization.

Foolad said he believes that commercializing a new crop variety demonstrates the value of public university plant breeding programs, which have dwindled amid budget pressures and shifting research priorities.

"I was able to tap into wild tomato varieties for genetic material, which requires a long-term commitment," he said. "University breeders can take on projects such as this when seed companies can't because of the pressure to show return on investment more quickly."

In addition, he said, university environments can be dynamic, with emphasis on learning and discovery. For instance, Foolad's lab has identified new genes for resistance to late blight, which caused the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and is still a serious disease of potatoes and tomatoes today.

Meanwhile, Foolad is working to move more new tomato varieties to market. "I believe we have new varieties that are even better than Valentine," he said. "So I'm hopeful that we can get some of those into seed catalogs in the near future."

-- Chuck Gill