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

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

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

Various techniques that might be used to jump start capsaicin synthesis include using CRISPR genome-editing to modify genetic promoter sequences to turn on and turn up the dormant genes for capsaicin production in tomatoes.

Odd fruit: Tomatoes are not the first food that scientists have suggested could be given an unusual new twist using CRISPR. And now with the latest gene editing techniques, it could be possible to make a spicy tomato by altering a tomato to produce capsaicinoids as well.

The chilli pepper, from an evolutionary perspective, is the tomato's long-lost spitfire cousin.

The capsaicinoids found abundantly in chili peppers have nutritional and antibiotic properties and are used in painkillers - and pepper spray.

Writing in the journal Trends in Plant Science, researchers from the Federal University of Vicosa in Brazil said developing spicy tomatoes could make it easier to produce capsaicinoids for commercial purposes. Meanwhile Native American horticulturalists in Mexico 6,000 years ago turned wild bird peppers into domesticated varieties that continued to produce capsaicins (the compounds that give peppers their delicious hotness). The tomato could itself become a factory for producing capsaicinoids, or, yes, companies could just market spicy tomatoes. The molecules activate nerve cells in the tongue that deal with heat-induced pain, which the brain interprets as a burning sensation.

There 23 known types of capsaicinoids and they are all believed to stem from the chilli pepper's pith. However, the process of genetically tweaking a tomato species to generate the compound naturally is challenging and determining which genes are directly responsible for its production will take time. Previous gene sequencing work has shown that tomatoes have the genes necessary for capsaicinoids but don't have the machinery to turn them on. Spicy tomatoes would nevertheless appeal to the culinary world, but these compounds, such as capsaicin, have important medical uses, specifically in the treatment of cancer.

'In theory you could use these genes to produce capsaicinoids in the tomato, ' Dr Zsögön said. "We are trying this and a few other things".