Scientists are creating super-healthy, gene-edited spicy tomatoes

Fruits of labor.
Fruits of labor.
Image: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger
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Somewhere in an alternate universe, humans are eating spicy tomatoes.

We’re not though, because 19 million years ago on Earth, the juicy fruit and its spicy cousin, the chili pepper, split from their common ancestor, forever changing the trajectory of the two cultivated plants. While they still share much of the same DNA, they’ve taken on much different growing patterns, shapes, and taste profiles.

The split is of interest to scientists who today wonder if advances in gene-editing techniques can once again merge the two and create a food item that incorporates the ease of mass-growing tomatoes with the nutrient benefits of chili peppers. Brazilian researchers are making the case to give this work a shot in the latest issue of the journal Trends in Plant Science. The idea isn’t to create a new foodie fad, though. The point, they argue (pdf), is to get more people eating capsaicinoids, the molecules that give red peppers their spicy pizzazz, for their health benefits.

Scientists say there are 23 different types of capsaicinoids, and many of those molecules have demonstrated anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and weight-loss properties. Certain of the molecules have also been shown to ward off the development of tumors.

The problem is that it’s difficult to commercially mass produce capsaicinoids. Pungent varieties of the pepper plant, also known as the genus Capsicum, are generally grown in open-field settings, which makes them more vulnerable to environmental conditions that wind up being bad for higher yields. Their sensitivity to high air temperatures, carbon-dioxide concentration, and precipitation make pepper plants an especially labor-intensive crop. And it’s hard for farmers to keep their spicy Capsicum levels consistent across an entire crop.

Tomatoes, on the other hand, are very easy to mass produce because they are less sensitive to environmental factors and are also often grown indoors rather than in an open-field setting. This makes them a prime potential vehicle for engineering to contain more capsaicinoids.

As Brazilian scientist Agustin Zsögön, co-author of the opinion piece, told The Guardian, “all the genes to produce capsaicinoids exist in the tomato, they are just not active.” But thanks to the gene-editing tool called Crispr, scientists think they can switch those genes back on. That’ll give tomatoes the extra oomph they need to deliver even more health benefits to everyday eaters—just with a little extra spice a lot more beneficial qualities.

This isn’t the only work researchers are using Crispr technology for to explore ways to enhance tomatoes. At least three groups of plant scientists around the world are currently tinkering with the genetics of tomatoes to make them better-suited to the needs of growers and shippers, as well as to enhance their flavors for the people who actually eat the fruit.

The researchers behind the journal article have already started work on their new tomato and expect to present more on their findings by the end of 2019.