Tweaking vegetables’ genes could make them tastier

Today’s Brussels sprouts taste better than you might remember from childhood. It’s not that your refined adult palate appreciates them better. Rather a new variety has displaced the original vegetable. You can thank plant breeders for the change. And modern breeders, armed with new gene-editing technology, are looking to replicate Brussels sprouts’ reinvention.

In the late 1990s, scientists identified specific chemicals, called glucosinolates, that made Brussels sprouts taste bitter. Plant breeders started growing old seeds, previously discarded for producing paltry harvests, to identify tastier versions with lower levels of these compounds. Then they crossed these delicious but low-yield plants with modern, more prolific individuals until they found a descendant that made plenty of tasty sprouts, transforming the once-maligned vegetable from a bitter pill into a popular side dish.

But other veggies haven’t fared as well. That’s because most breeding decisions favor plant traits that matter to vegetable growers, not vegetable eaters. “I’d say disease resistance is probably the major focus these days of most breeding programs because that’s what imperils the ability of the farmer to grow the crop,” says Harry Klee, a professor emeritus of horticulture at the University of Florida, who specializes in tomatoes. “Quality traits are really completely ignored.”


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