Sequencing Tomatoes: David Francis Breeds High Beta-Carotene Varieties
Beta-carotene is an important carotenoid for human health due to its pro-vitamin A activity. Carotenoids are red, orange, or yellow, fat-soluble compounds that are naturally present in many fruits, grains, oils, and vegetables. Dr. David Francis, Professor at The Ohio State University in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, is examining carotenoid profiles of vintage and contemporary tomato (S. lycopersicum) varieties to identify sources of high beta-carotene.
Francis is a tomato breeder, developing breeding lines, parents and hybrids for the processing tomato industry. His research group, the OARDC Tomato Genetics and Breeding Program, integrates field-based plant breeding with the discovery of sequence variation, and techniques derived from population genetics to identify novel traits and understand how human selection has shaped contemporary plant varieties.
Dr. Francis’ focus is on secondary metabolites and uses tomatoes as his model, along with genome sequencing and natural varieties of tomatoes, to create different varieties that have a range of carotenoid and flavonoid pigments, which relate to the nutritional value of the tomatoes. The genetic research improves the nutritional aspect as well as other attributes like quality of product and resistance to diseases.
David’s research has shown that there are multiple ways to develop tomatoes with a wide range of beta-carotene. Carotenoids are thought to have a number of health benefits, such as reducing the risk of developing cancer, cardiovascular disease and macular degeneration. Using his research, Dr. Francis says he plans on working with local processors to see if they could develop products to make use of these unique tomato varieties that focus on the natural variation to create a more diverse product portfolio. “If I’m going to make use of the natural diversity within plants to create new products, then I have to integrate breeding and genetics, food processing, nutrition, and even medicine—the FIC helps me collaborate across all colleges.”
Dr. Francis was one of the first members of the Food Innovation Center. He has received a 2010 seed grant and a 2011 team award from the FIC. “The advantage of the FIC is that it allows members to explore high-risk projects that wouldn’t normally be funded through the competitive grants process. The fact the FIC makes it easier to have contact with the breadth of the food industry is everything.”
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