Genetically engineered tomato competes with 50 bottles of red wine

Don't expect them in salad yet, but research shows introducing certain genes can turn tomatoes into supercharged nutrient bags.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read
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Many people believe creating altered edibles in a lab can harm our health and the environment. What if those GMOs -- genetically modified organisms -- were superfoods designed to improve health and protect against disease?

Research published October 26 in the journal Nature Communications shows that it might be possible to genetically engineer versions of familiar foods that dramatically increase their load of beneficial nutrients.

The research, conducted at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England, produced a new variety of tomato that holds the same amount of resveratrol as 50 bottles of red wine, and the same amount of genistein as 2.5kg of tofu, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry's magazine Chemistry World.

Resveratrol is a compound found in grapes, peanuts and some berries that might hold health benefits such as reducing inflammation, fighting cancer and reducing the incidence of coronary heart disease. Genistein is an estrogen-like substance found in plants (particularly soy) that may help fight osteoporosis and cancer and could also offer cardiovascular benefits. Regardless of the efficacy of those particular compounds, it shows the potential of the tomato as a nutrient delivery vehicle.

"The tomato is a wonderful production system," study leader Cathie Martin told Chemistry World. "If metabolic engineering is targeted to the end of fruit development, the fruit can serve as a bag in which to accumulate natural products, without impacting yield."

To create the supercharged tomato, Martin and her colleagues introduced a gene from a weedy plant in the mustard family called Arabidopsis thaliana into the tomato genome. The introduced gene caused the new tomato plant to produce more antioxidant compounds called flavonols (a subset of flavonoids) and phenylpropanoids. Then other genes can be added to get the plant to produce specific compounds for harvesting, such as the resveratrol and genistein in this particular experiment.

In addition to potentially creating a cheaper source of such nutrients in industrial quantities, this research could eventually lead to production of extra-nutritious fruits for human consumption. And perhaps these genetically engineered tomatoes could also serve as a bit of good PR for GMOs.

"I think when consumers see a product which offers a benefit to them, and which could not be derived by natural breeding methods, they will understand much better the potential that biotech crops have to benefit society," Martin said.