Geneticists Are Considering Creating A Spicy Tomato


A group of geneticists at the Federal University of Viçosa in Brazil aims to create a spicy tomato that everyone will enjoy someday, either as food or more importantly, for medical use.

This new research published on Jan. 7 in the journal Trends in Plant Science suggests that tomatoes may be engineered to produce capsaicinoids using the latest gene-editing techniques.

What Are Capsaicinoids?

Many may not have known that tomatoes and chili pepper are "cousins," coming from a common ancestor 19 million years ago and thus, sharing some similar DNA. Tomatoes grow to be plump, nutritious fruits that are produced in massive quantities. On the contrary, chili peppers have evolved to develop capsaicinoids — the molecules behind its spiciness — to defend itself from small mammals that eat their fruits and have low production.

The biologists believe that their study will offer a faster and cost-effective route to yielding mass production of capsaicinoids that contain antibiotic properties and nutrients. It is as well used in creating pepper spray and painkillers.

"Engineering the capsaicinoid genetic pathway to the tomato would make it easier and cheaper to produce this compound, which has very interesting applications," said Agustin Zsögön, the senior author of the study who is a plant biologist at UFV. "We have the tools powerful enough to engineer the genome of any species; the challenge is to know which gene to engineer and where."

Zsӧgӧn and his colleagues are convinced that spicy tomatoes could be the "next step in the fascinating story of pungent crops." However, producing capsaicinoids won't come handy and requires a complex process.

'Biofactory' Of Capsaicinoids

Zsӧgӧn cited that while the genes are present in the tomatoes, they are passive. Their research invented a method for using gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 as a shortcut to activate the genes in the fruit and transform it into a "biofactory" of capsaicinoids.

Last year, the biologists already performed an experiment and "domesticated" a wild tomato by engineering the strain to grow a bigger fruit and produce a higher yield of the fruit with the use of gene editing.

Spicy tomatoes would nevertheless appeal to the culinary world, but these compounds, such as capsaicin, have important medical uses, specifically in the treatment of cancer. They are also used in anti-inflammatory and pain medication as well as other commercial uses.

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