Blurred Lines: Tomatoes, Tobacco and Potatoes

By Nathan Smith

Tomatoes, Tobacco, and Potatoes all seem rather different produce and, as far as man is concerned, all have different uses tomatoes for food, tobacco for smoking, and potatoes for toddlers’ first ventures into the world of art but they are in fact all members of the same plant family, the Solanaceae, and as such have a rather similar genetic framework.

Indeed this genetic similarity allows for some rather groovy biology. Recall if you will the cultural event that was The Simpsons, specifically the episode “E-I-E-I-(Annoyed Grunt)”. If the name sounds unfamiliar, this was the episode where Homer flees from a duel and decides to become a farmer. Using plutonium as a fertiliser, he inadvertently creates Tomacco, a hybrid between a Tomato and Tobacco plant. It sounds silly, even cartoonish, but could it actually happen?

Credit: Alan Levine

Credit: Alan Levine

Well…kind of. Tomato plants grafted to tobacco roots resulted in exceedingly high levels of nicotine in tomato leaves and up to a 100x increase in the nicotine amount of the fruit itself. Though, alas, the nicotine content of the fruit was negligible when compared to that of tobacco leaves.

Tomatoes have also been grafted with potato roots, resulting in a plant that produces cherry tomatoes above soil and potatoes below soil. Glorious.  And the best bit? After research exceeding 15 years, the plants are now commercially available. They are sold by the Ipswich-based company Thompson and Morgan under the trade name TomTato for the slightly dear price of £14.99.

Another member of the same family is Deadly Nightshade, but please don’t try to graft this to another species. I prefer my chips when they’re not trying to kill me.