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Genetically Modified Tomatoes
Genetically Modified Tomatoes

The first genetically modified food to become commercially available was a tomato. The Flavr Savr tomato, created by the biotechnology company Calgene, was approved by the FDA in 1994. It was designed to ripen on the vine and stay firmer and offer a longer shelf life than regular tomatoes. Economic difficulties forced Calgene to withdraw the Flavr Savr from grocery shelves in 1997, but, ever since, environmental activists concerned by the onset of genetically engineered crops have targeted modified tomatoes.

Certain rumors and horror stories mention square tomatoes or tomatoes that glow in the dark, but, in particular, skeptics have focused on research conducted by DNA Plant Technology, a company that developed an experimental, genetically engineered tomato in 1991. The tomato included a modified gene from a breed of arctic flounder that, it was hoped, would allow the tomatoes to be more resistant to frost and cold storage. Activists decried these so-called "fish tomatoes," protesting their entry into our food supply. But the experiment ultimately did not prove successful, and the pursuit of a cold-resistant tomato was abandoned. No one has ever purchased a tomato or tomato-based product with fish genes.

Yet research continues for new modifications that may increase the versatility of the tomato. In July 2001, American and Canadian scientists working at the University of California published the results of their experiments developing a salt-resistant tomato in the journal NATURE BIOTECHNOLOGY. According to the USDA, 24.7 million acres of farmland worldwide are lost each year due to salinity caused by modern irrigation techniques. The new salt-resistant tomato is able to survive in otherwise uncultivable land -- ground that is 50 times saltier than normal -- by transporting salt from the soil to its leaves, leaving the fruit's taste unchanged. What's more, the process is said to actually clean the soil by removing the salt accumulations. It is hoped that this technology may be extended to other crops as well. At this point, the salt-proof tomato has not been approved for commercial cultivation.