Researchers have found that inserting an animal gene into tomatoes can produce hardier tomatoes.

The modified tomatoes better resist one major disease and also function better in cooler weather.

Researchers at the Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation were able to produce hardier tomatoes by inserting an animal gene into an ornamental variety of tomatoes not usually eaten called micro-toms.

Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Marilyn Roossinck, Pin Xu and Stephanie Rogers reported that the gene controls a growth mechanism called apoptosis or “programmed cell death.” “It’s a suicide mechanism for cells, ” says Roossinck, but one “that is very tightly regulated and controlled.” She notes that in humans, for example, “if you look at your hand and you see that you have all these fingers on your hand, separated—the reason you have separate fingers is because of programmed cell death during development. During development human hands start as paddles, the fingers then form, and the skin between the fingers then dies.

The modified tomatoes resist a disease called the Cucumber Mosaic Virus, which, along with a parasitic piece of RNA called satellite RNA, takes advantage of the programmed cell death process to kill the tomato plant. It has led to tomato crop failures in some countries around the world. The virus is quite widespread and can infect more than 1,200 varieties of plants.

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