Scientists want to genetically engineer a spicy tomato

Bland tomato, you're out. Long live the spicy tomato.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
2 min read
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I do not like tomatoes.

On a pizza base as a sauce, sure, I can handle that. But as far as fruits go, I consider them absolutely mediocre. The Devil's fruit. That's what I'd call them, were they actually worth thinking about. And sure, people tell me I am not eating the right tomatoes. I need to eat "organic" tomatoes, they say. Maybe my tomato source is no good but simply put, if I can avoid them, I will.

But scientists have discovered a way to, quite literally, spice up the lame fruit. A new study, published in the journal Trends in Plant Science, suggests that the tomato could be genetically engineered to produce capsaicins -- the molecules that give peppers their heat (or "pungency", as the scientists say).

Genetically, the tomato and the pepper are long-lost relatives, having only diverged around 19 million years ago. Because of this lineage, lurking within the tomato genome is a suite of genes that can produce the spicy capsaicin compound. Normally, those genes aren't switched on, so the tomato is that sad, tasteless fruit that I've encountered on too many burgers.  But the team of researchers suggest, using genetic engineering techniques, they could turn the tomato into a "biofactory", capable of producing the capsaicin molecules.

Of course, while most of us will likely think of the way that might affect our pizzas and pastas, turning the tomato into a capsaicin biofactory provides a number of benefits. Capsaicin compounds are high in antioxidants, have antitumor activity, pain managing and can even spur weight loss. Unfortunately, the pepper doesn't grow quite as easily as the tomato, which means engineering the tomato to make these compounds has practical and economical benefits -- you can get a lot more capsaicin. 

The tomato is also one of the most well-understood plants in terms of genetic engineering and has a storied history of genetic modification. In 1994, a modified tomato that was resistant to rot was produced by Calgene, known as the Flavr Savr. It was the first genetically modified food available on supermarket shelves in the US but production was halted in 1997 because it wasn't profitable.

The researcher team concludes, provided they can get the technique working in tomatoes, producing capsaicin production would only be the start, with other genetic pathways in the tomato ripe for manipulation. They suggest the tomato could also be used to produce bixin, the second most important natural color additive in the food industry, and beta-carotene, which is converted by the body into vitamin A.

I never thought I'd be here, but science might actually have me excited about tomatoes. Questions still remain over whether we should, rather than whether we can. With genetic engineering techniques like CRISPR becoming commonplace over the last five years, it's getting easier to make tiny edits in all manner of plants and animals.

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