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Purple Tomato Genetically Engineered to Fight Cancer

Genetically engineered purple tomatoes
Genetically engineered purple tomatoes
John Innes Centre

There may be an upside to GMOs. Now settle down and hear us out.

British scientists have been working on developing a dark purple tomato that contains high amounts of the chemical anthocyanin, which is normally found in berries such as blueberries, cranberries and blackberries. As we reported earlier this week, anthocyanin has strong anti-inflammatory effects, and tests have shown that the purple tomatoes slow down cancer in mice. They also have double the shelf life of regular tomatoes.

The scientists created these Super Tomatoes by transferring the gene containing the "intense purple" pigment from snapdragons to regular red tomatoes.

Now the scientists are about to harvest their first crop, which had to be grown in Canada because of strict anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) regulations in the UK, the Daily Mail reports.

The crop, grown in an Ontario glasshouse, will yield 2,000 liters of tomato juice. The first 1,200 liters will soon be shipped to Norwich, where scientists from the John Innes Centre, who developed the medicinal tomato, will work on getting authorization for commercial sale.

"Most people do not eat five portions of fruits and vegetables a day, but they can get more benefit from those they do eat if common fruit and veg can be developed that are higher in bioactive compounds," says Professor Cathie Martin from the John Innes Centre.

According to the Centre, "Anthocyanins offer protection against certain cancers, cardiovascular disease and age-related degenerative diseases. There is evidence that anthocyanins also have anti-inflammatory activity, promote visual acuity and hinder obesity and diabetes." For now, the tomatoes and juice will be used to study the effects of a high-anthocyanin diet on cancer, cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases.

In a pilot test, the lifespan of cancer-susceptible mice was significantly extended - by 30% - when their diet was supplemented with the purple tomatoes compared to supplementation with normal red tomatoes, according to the researchers.

Other varieties, high in compounds such as resveratrol (found in red wine and grapes), are already being used to develop skincare products. The researchers have also investigated the Sicilian blood orange as a unique natural citrus variety with high levels of fruit-specific anthocyanins.

Bringing the purple tomato juice to consumers will require regulatory approval, but that may be as little as two years away in the U.S.

The John Innes Centre scientists said they chose tomatoes as their Frankenfruit because they are the world's most popular fruit.

"This is one of the first examples of metabolic engineering that offers the potential to promote health through diet by reducing the impact of chronic disease," says Professor Martin. "And certainly the first example of a GMO with a trait that really offers a potential benefit for all consumers. The next step will be to take the preclinical data forward to human studies with volunteers to see if we can promote health through dietary preventive medicine strategies." 

In other words, genetic engineering can be used for good, not just evil, which is kind of an exciting concept. And the worst that could happen? Snapdragons might sprout from your ears.

But the biggest question is: What are they going to call this lovely purple gem?


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