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The Pimps that May Save Tomatoes

These tiny tomatoes, their size measured in millimeters, are one of the ancient ancestors of the huge variety of tomatoes we eat today. Native to Peru, Solanum pimpinellifolium tomatoes are commonly called “pimps.”

Although you’d never know it from the colorful cornucopia on display at any farmers’ market on a summer Saturday, all modern domestic tomatoes (known botanically as Solanum lycopersicum) are remarkably similar. Taken together, they possess no more than 5 percent of the total genetic variation present within the wild species and primitive varieties. The domestic tomato’s progenitor has the other 95 or more percent. Modern tomatoes may taste good and offer eye appeal, but they lack many genes that allow them to fight disease and survive drought.

By contrast, the pimps and about a dozen other tomato relatives that grow wild in western South America are a tough crew, adapted to survive without the help of farmers in dramatically different climates: from some of the driest, harshest desert landscapes in the world to humid, rain forest lowlands to chilly alpine slopes. As far as we know, the inhabitants of the region never domesticated them. But a thousand miles to the north, the pre-Columbian residents of what is now southern Mexico set about planting and cultivating them, saving the seeds of those that bore the biggest, tastiest fruits and crossing desirable plants with one another. Distance prevented these early farmers from crossbreeding their new varieties with the original populations.

Scientists would like to crossbreed pimps with modern tomatoes to develop hardier breeds that can deal with climate change and monoculture challenges. But there are challenges. Pimps are dying out due to loss of habitat and commercial herbicides. And there are political problems with exporting seeds from Peru. And Peru itself is not interested in saving the pimps. Read about all these factors and author Barry Estabrook’s quest to taste a wild pimp, at Smithsonian.

(Image credit: Scott Peacock, C.M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center)


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