UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Valentine's Day may have passed for this year, but if you're in love with sweet, firm, antioxidant-rich -– and award winning – tomatoes that will perform well in your garden this season, you're in luck, thanks to a researcher in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.
Valentine, a new variety of grape tomato that germinated in the breeding program of plant scientist Majid Foolad, now is available commercially after nearly two decades in development. Foolad, a professor of plant genetics, partnered with plant breeders at Johnny's Selected Seeds to launch the variety, which was introduced this winter in Johnny's 2018 seed catalog and on the company's website.
Attesting to its quality, Valentine was named an All-America Selections 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 in his tomato genetics and breeding program, which began when he arrived at Penn State in 1994 from the University of California Davis, where he earned his doctorate and spent more than four years as a postdoctoral scholar, conducting research on tomatoes and other crop species.
"This is the first commercial variety released by my program," Foolad said. "The life of a breeding project from the first cross until it reaches the market can be 10 to 15 years, but we have enough germplasm now that I expect to have more varieties on the market by 2020."
Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable crop in the world and the second largest in Pennsylvania after sweet corn, Foolad noted. Upon arrival at Penn State, he began by studying the genetic basis of cold tolerance, given Pennsylvania's cooler, shorter growing season when compared to major tomato-producing regions such as California and Florida.
As Foolad 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 diseases, 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 taste.
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.
Foolad 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 traits, 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, and the collaboration was underway. 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.
"It took time because varieties need to be tested again and again to be sure traits hold up in various conditions and environments," Foolad explained. "They must perform well over several years in different seasons and locations."
Not only was Johnny's Selected Seeds convinced, but so were the All-America Selections judges. "As part of the AAS process, Valentine was evaluated by 28 professional growers around the country," Foolad said. "Their data were compiled and summarized, all the varieties were ranked, and Valentine came out on top."
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 still is a serious disease of potatoes and tomatoes today. Future discoveries are likely to help society increase food production to feed a growing world population, adapt crops to a changing climate, and reduce the environmental impact of farming.
"We also are training the next generation of plant breeders," he said. "Many of our former graduate students now are breeders in the seed industry and academia."
Meanwhile, Foolad is working to move more new tomato varieties to market. With funding from the College of Agricultural Sciences' Research Applications for Innovation (RAIN) grant program, he has contracted with a company in Costa Rica, with its longer growing season, to mass-produce seed from 18 hybrid varieties to share with Johnny's and other seed companies for evaluation and possible commercialization.
"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."