New spicy tomato could be produced with gene tweak, say researchers

Genetically Engineered Spicy Tomatoes

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. The molecules of the materials are rich in nutritional and antibiotic characteristics, which are normally used to make painkillers and pepper spray used for protection.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the chili pepper is a cousin to the tomato.

The fleshy tomato stands in sharp contrast to the more agriculturally hard chilli plant that contain capsaicinoids, molecules that give peppers their spiciness.

"Their multiple health benefits make capsaicinoids a valuable nutraceutical product, which is likely to increase in demand in the coming years", scientists write in an opinion article in the journal Trends in Plant Science.

'We have the tools powerful enough to engineer the genome of any species; the challenge is to know which gene to engineer and where'.

The spicy aftertaste that capsaicinoids produce is not its taste but rather a reaction to pain. Evidence suggests the evolution of capsaicinoids helped chili peppers deter small mammals from eating their fruit.

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Their main goal is not to get "hot" tomatoes into the produce aisle at your local grocery, but instead to use tomatoes to mass produce capsaicins for pharmaceutical purposes and/or as a pest deterrent.

There 23 known types of capsaicinoids and they are all believed to stem from the chilli pepper's pith. Previous gene sequencing work has shown that tomatoes have the genes necessary for capsaicinoids but don't have the machinery to turn them on.

'Since we don't have solid data about the expression patterns of the capsaicinoid pathway in the tomato fruit, we have to try alternative approaches. One is to activate candidate genes one at a time and see what happens, which compounds are produced.

But researchers in Brazil and Ireland say such methods also could offer practical advantages, with spicy tomatoes offering a way of harvesting capsaicinoids, the pungent chemicals found in chilli peppers.

Hot stuff: Even though chili peppers and tomato plants diverged from a common ancestor millions of years ago, tomatoes still possess the genetic pathway needed to make capsaicinoids, the molecules that make chilis hot.

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