A study led by John Innes Centre researchers in the United Kingdom (UK) resulted in the mass production of natural compounds in a single, genetically modified fruit - a tomato. These compounds include life-extending Resveratrol found in wine and Genistein found in tofu which has cancer-preventing benefits.
By introducing a protein called AtMYB12, which is normally found in a garden weed called thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), scientists found that the protein activates a wide set of genes responsible for natural compound production in the tomato plant. The AtMYB12 acts like a plug or tap that scientists can control to reduce or increase the amount of natural compounds that can benefit the plant and in turn, humans.
The researchers noted that the introduction of the AtMYB12 protein did not only increase the plant's ability to create the Resveratrol and Genistein, it also influenced the plant's ability to devote more carbon and energy in the compound creation.
"Medicinal plants with high value are often difficult to grow and manage, and need very long cultivation times to produce the desired compounds. Our research provides a fantastic platform to quickly produce these valuable medicinal compounds in tomatoes. Target compounds could be purified directly from tomato juice," said co-author Dr. Yang Zhang
The research team is optimistic that the same genetic switching technique can be used to mass manufacture other natural compounds involved in the production of several medicines. Tomatoes are relatively cheap to produce and can be turned into juice form where the compounds can be extracted. Eventually, the fruit itself could soon become a medicinal plant with increased levels of illness-fighting compounds.
The study provides a basis for a more cost-efficient industrial production of valuable natural compounds from plants compared to extracting small amounts from tons of soybeans and grapes. The researchers believe their design can be applied to other compounds such as alkaloids and terpenoids.
Co-author Cathie Martin stressed that their study delivers a design to mass produce not just phenylpropanoid compounds but potentially more natural compounds that can extracted from aromatic amino acids.
The researchers published their study in the Nature Communications journal on Oct. 26.