London: Scientists have discovered a protein that ripens fruits early and could boost their value and sales dramatically.
The finding would enable farmers to accelerate or delay the ripening of entire fruits to prevent them falling victim to unseasonal weather.
Leicester University researchers have applied for a patent and are now planning to test their discovery on tomatoes, bell peppers and citrus fruits, the journal Science reports.
They demonstrated for the first time that a regulatory system which governs how proteins are broken down in plant cells also affects chloroplasts -- structures which control photosynthesis, according to the Telegraph.
Using thale cress, a small flowering plant, they showed that altering a particular gene could change the speed with which chloroplasts transform into other structures in plant cells, including those involved in the ripening of fruit.
Testing the mechanism on crop plants will prove whether or not it could one day be used commercially to ensure fruit always ripens at the right time, the researchers explained.
Paul Jarvis, project leader, said: "We are already transferring the work into tomatoes. So I would think, within a year, we will know whether or not it is going to work in principle. It is incredible to get to this point -- it has been a long journey. We have known for some time that this was going to be a big breakthrough."
Because the same regulatory system governs various other aspects of plant development, such as how quickly leaves age, it could also be used for other purposes such as keeping crops alive for longer periods, he added.
Douglas Kell, professor and chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which funded the project, said: "The ripening process can happen quickly, and it can take just a few days for a fruit or vegetable to be considered inedible.
"This discovery brings us one step closer to greater control over ripening so that we have greater flexibility for farmers when supplying produces in the best condition," Kell said.