Getting produce to market before it spoils is a constant battle with Mother Nature. One way to ensure ripe tomatoes is to pick them green and induce ripening with ethylene gas. But too much gas can cause overripening--which results in an annual loss of tomatoes worth $30 million.
Ethylene is a natural hormone produced by an enzymatic reaction in tomato plants. Robert A. Saftner, plant physiologist at the Agriculture Dept.'s Horticulture Crops Quality Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., has found a way to alter the plant's own ethylene production--and thus better control its ripening. The key is to vary cell pressures in the plant tissues by adjusting factors such as temperature and sugar concentrations.
Saftner says cell pressure also may influence ethylene production in other produce. Further application of his research, he says, could someday help double the shelf life of tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables, too.