It is a commonly-held belief that genetically modified organisms (GMO) are dangerous to our health and the environment. However, a research published in the journal Nature Communications showed that it might be possible to genetically engineer food, such as tomatoes, to make them into superfoods that are designed to improve our health and protect us against diseases.
“The tomato is a wonderful production system. 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,” said study leader Cathie Martin.
To create the genetically altered tomato, Martin and her team introduced a gene from a weedy plant in the mustard family into the tomato genome. This new gene triggered the new tomato plant to produce more antioxidant compounds called flavonols (a subset of flavonoids) and phenylpropanoids. Other genes were then added to get the plant to produce specific compounds for harvesting, In this particular experiment, the resveratrol and genistein were introduced.
By introducing additional plant genes, the fruits can be altered to produce specific compounds that have certain nutritional or health benefits. “The tomato is a wonderful production system. 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,” said Martin.
“This research gives us a better understanding of how healthy nutrients are genetically controlled in tomato, and maybe other fruits. It is a great example of how biotechnology could provide health benefits directly to consumers and will further broaden the debate on GMOs in the EU,” Huw Jones, a senior research scientist at agricultural science institute Rothamsted Research, opined.
More than potentially producing a cheaper source of specific nutrients in large quantities, this research could also eventually lead to production of very nutritious fruits for human consumption. Martin stated that, “If the different compounds we have engineered in tomato can be shown to protect against chronic diseases in preclinical studies, we could consider applying for regulatory approval for commercial sales. This we are doing with high anthocyanin tomato juice which has well-proven protective effects.”
In addition, these supercharged tomatoes could help improve the public perception of genetically engineered food. “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.