Scientists Are Creating Super Tomatoes That Could Help You Lose Weight
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Tomatoes, already classed as a superfood, are being gene-edited by scientists in an experiment to bolster their super-ness, as well as their spiciness.
I am sure I am not alone in picturing the ‘tomacco’ from The Simpsons as soon as anyone mentions gene-editing, especially when coupled with the tomato. Unlike the political satire of The Simpsons’s episode regarding the government and tobacco industry, this latest gene-editing venture by scientists is for the benefit of consumer health.
19 million years ago, this delectable fruit split from its spicy cousin, the chilli pepper, thus changing the trajectory of the two cultivated plants. Although they still share much of the same DNA, they have taken on different growing patterns, shapes and taste profiles.
This split is of interest to scientists who have begun to wonder if advances in gene-editing techniques can once again merge the two in order to create a new form of superfood; a fruit with the ease of mass-growing tomatoes and the nutrient benefit of chilli peppers.
Brazilian researchers are making their case to investigate this theory in the latest issue of the journal Trends in Plant Science. Rather than creating the latest foodie fad, they argue that the purpose is to get more people eating capsaicinoids (the molecules that give red peppers their spicy pizzazz) for their health benefits.
According to scientists, there are 23 different types of capsaicinoids, and many of these molecules have demonstrated anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and weight-loss properties. In addition, some of these molecules have also been shown to prevent the development of tumours.
Mass producing capsaicinoids has proved difficult as pungent varieties of the pepper plant known as the genus Capsicum are generally grown in open-field settings, making them vulnerable to environmental conditions. The plants are sensitive to high air temperatures, carbon-dioxide concentration and precipitation, making them an especially labour-intensive crop. This combination of factors makes it difficult for farmers to keep their spicy Capsicum levels consistent across an entire crop.
This is where tomatoes hold the promise to step in and save the day. Easy to mass produce because they are less sensitive to environmental factors, they are also often grown indoors rather than in an open-field setting. This makes them a prime potential vehicle for engineering to contain more capsaicinoids. Brazilian scientist, Agustin Zsögön, explained:
“all the genes to produce capsaicinoids exist in the tomato, they are just not active.” (Quartz)
This may be set to change thanks to the gene editing tool, Crispr. Scientists believe that with the help of this tool, they can switch these genes back on. This will give tomatoes that je ne sais quoi to deliver even more health benefits to consumers, along with a little extra kick.
Other researchers around the world are using Crispr technology to enhance the properties of the humble tomato. Their experiments include making them better-suited to the needs of growers, as well as enhancing their flavours.
The researchers behind the journal article have already begun work on their new tomato and expect to present their findings by the end of 2019.