Scientists Want To Engineer A Spicy Tomato

James Marshall
January 9, 2019

Tomatoes could be developed to produce the chemicals that give chillies their heat.

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.

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

"Engineering the capsaicinoid genetic pathway to the tomato would make it easier and cheaper to produce this compound, which has very interesting applications", senior author and plant biologist Agustin Zsögön of Brazil's Federal University of Viçosa said in a press release. Capsaicinoids on their part have nutritional and antibiotic properties that are used in painkillers and pepper spray. 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.

Capsaicin has a number of uses that go beyond adding spice to your food. And while previous gene sequencing work has shown that tomatoes have the genes necessary for capsaicinoids, the study also found that they don't have the machinery to turn them on.

There are at least 23 different types of capsaicinoids, which originate from the pith of the chilli pepper.

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. Chili peppers are harder to grow and less productive than tomatoes, so by activating the tomato's ability to produce capsaicinoids researchers could increase yields and lower costs.

Zsogon said, "All the genes to produce capsaicinoids exist in the tomato, they are just not active". We are trying this and a few other things'.

By studying the chili pepper researchers may have stumbled across a way to genetically engineer a tomato, creating a potentially spicy tomato; a game changer.

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

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