Shoppers who miss the taste of farm-grown tomatoes may find solace in a new technology that puts back what generations of breeding for hardiness and shelf life have taken out. A new variety of tomato has been genetically modified (GM) to produce geraniol, a rose-smelling compound found in fruits and flowers. In a blind taste test, 60 percent of 37 testers preferred the flavor of the GM tomato, according to a study published online this week in Nature Biotechnology.

The result proves that genetic modification can potentially restore some of the flavor and aroma lost as breeders have created more durable strains of tomatoes and other crops, says biotechnologist Efraim Lewinsohn of the Newe Ya'ar Research Center in Ramat Yishay, Israel, who led the research. "You often sit down in living rooms and people complain tomatoes don't taste like they used to," he says.

In an effort to banish such idle supper time chatter forever, Lewinsohn and colleagues gave extra-large cherry tomatoes [see image above] a geraniol-synthesizing gene from the lemon basil plant. The modified tomato does not taste exactly like a traditional tomato, but it does noticeably change and enhance the flavor—something that GM technology has not achieved before, Lewinsohn says. Tomatoes contain more than 400 volatiles, or potentially fragrant compounds, and researchers have yet to identify the most important contributors to the classic tomato taste.

The team found that tomatoes broke down geraniol into at least ten other lemon- and rose-smelling compounds. Taste testers described the fruit as smelling like rose, geranium and lemongrass. One side effect of the change was a reduction in lycopene, a red carotenoid pigment, which gave the tomatoes a more orange hue.

Lewinsohn says the commercial acceptance of this or any other flavor-enhanced tomato would depend on consumer tastes and attitudes. He adds that, in principle, flavor improvement could come from more traditional breeding instead of GM technology, which is unpopular in European countries.

Another possible source of better-tasting tomatoes is the local farmers' market—or even the backyard garden—but Lewinsohn notes that locally grown tomatoes are not available year-round. "If you want commercial production of good quality tomatoes," he says, "that's more difficult."