What is tasty? Metabolomics provides the answer

A single substance in a melon can be the reason why one melon is tastier than another. But try finding that substance. Researchers at Plant Research International can do just that with their ‘metabolomics platform,’ a series of advanced measuring devices. They can use it to improve the quality of products or accelerate the breeding process.

With the help of taste panels, it is possible to establish quite quickly whether a vegetable, a fruit or a processed product tastes or smells good. But the reasons behind the verdict are not usually known. Plants contain hundreds of substances which can all impact on the quality of the end product. Take primary metabolites, such as amino acids or glucose, and secondary metabolites, such as caffeine in coffee or capsaicin in chilli peppers.

Measuring hundreds of substances at the same time

The metabolomics platform is therefore a real boon. It is a series of devices which can measure hundreds of substances at a time. A little bit of juice from a plant, fruit or product is enough. The platform separates the juice out into all its constituent substances. By comparing varieties or products with each other, our researchers identify the substances which are important for the taste or the smell of a product. They then look for genetic markers which are responsible for that specific substance.

Speeding up breeding

In this way, our researchers can substantially speed up the breeding of a variety. An example might be a target variety of melon that tastes good and is resistant to a particular disease. The breeder crosses a tasty non-resistant variety with a less tasty, more resistant one. The breeder will want to discard the offspring which are not tasty as quickly as possible.

With the metabolomics platform, researchers can quickly detect the offspring which contain non-tasty flavours so that the breeder can immediately discard them. That speeds up the breeding process by one or two years, thus saving costs.

Improving the quality of processed product

As well as for speeding up the breeding process, the platform can also be used to improve the quality of processed products such as coffee, tea and rice. For example, in order to make tomato puree, different processing steps are required. At each step, important substances can be lost without the manufacturer realising it. With the platform, our researchers determine which substances are present at every stage. If this reveals that important substances are lost at a particular stage, such as antioxidants, which are good for the health, the manufacturer can modify that processing step. In this way, the quality of the end product is improved.