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Scientists Want To Use Gene Editing To Turn Wild 'Groundcherry' Into The Next Strawberry

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Photos of ground cherries. Researchers published a study proposing the use of CRISPR gene-editing tool to make ground cherries, an orphan plant, ready for the supermarket. Breeding plants for large-scale farming usually takes from a decade to thousands of years.   ( Sebastian Soyk | Howard Hughes Medical Institute )

Scientists are looking at ground cherries as the next big berry crop. However, before it reaches the supermarket aisles, it needs a few major changes.

In a study, scientists propose the use of gene editing alongside genomics to improve certain traits of Physalis pruinosa, best known as ground cherries or sometimes strawberry tomatoes.

Turning Groundcherries Into The Next Big Berry Crop

Ground cherries are native of South and Central America. They are as small as the size of a marble and, according to researchers, has a complex taste described as "tropical yet sour" with hints of vanilla.

Ground cherries have eluded the attention of growers because they belong to a group of orphan crops that are often found in local native regions but not in supermarkets because they possess traits considered to be undesirable. They also do not produce huge yields and have a shorter shelf life.

However, researchers believe that it is time for ground cherries and other orphan crops to make it into the mainstream. He said that there is already a demand for the fruit from farmers markets where they occasionally appear and immediately sell out.

"I firmly believe that with the right approach, the groundcherry could become a major berry crop," stated Zachary Lippman of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Wild To Domesticated

In the study published in the journal Nature Plants, the researchers presented a way to make groundcherries from "wild" to close to domesticated in only a matter of years. Using CRISPR gene-editing technology, they can effectively modify groundcherries better suited for mainstream and large-scale farming.

To make ground cherries ready for the supermarket, researchers want to make the fruit larger, its flowers more prolific, and its weedy shape more compact. To do this, they first have to sequence the groundcherry's genome, use CRISPR gene-editing tool in the plant, and identify the genes responsible for the plant's "undesirable" traits.

Lippman and many others have already conducted studies on the genetics of tomatoes. The researchers could use everything that is known about tomato genome and apply it to distantly related species like the ground cherry.

The researchers described the method as a shortcut to traditional breeding techniques that usually takes a decade to thousands of years. Lippman said that he hopes their research will inspire other scientists to consider other orphan crops for large-scale farming.

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