Scientists are considering genetically engineering tomatoes to make them spicy in an effort to create an easier and more cost-effective way to access chemicals used in antibiotics and other crucial medicines.
According to the Daily Mail, tomatoes are distantly related to chilis. It is believed that the two plants diverged around 19 million years ago, with the tomato evolving into a sweet and juicy fruit while the chili developed a spicy flavor as a defense mechanism.
But their shared history means that tomato plants contain dormant genes which, if activated, would give them the same spicy flavor as chilis.
The chili’s spiciness comes from chemicals known as capsaicinoids. Interestingly, it is not actually the taste of chili which produces the warm sensation that we experience when we eat them. In fact, that is caused by a mild reaction to pain in our mouths and on our tongue.
The degree of spiciness of a chili is determined by its genes that regulate capsaicinoid production. Less spicy chillis contain a genetic mutation which restricts the production of these chemicals. While tomatoes also contain the genes that control the production of capsaicinoids, the tomato plant does not have the necessary infrastructure to activate it.
There are only 23 known capsaicinoids in the world and all are thought to originate from the pith of the chili pepper. Scientists are interested in finding new ways to develop capsaicinoids because of the medicinal and other properties they contain. The molecules have known nutritional and antibiotic properties and are used in such products as painkillers and pepper spray.
The group of scientists working towards the goal of creating spicy tomatoes to harvest capsaicinoids is headed up by Agustin Zsögön, a plant biologist at the Federal University of Viçosa in Brazil. He told the journal Cell Press, “Engineering the capsaicinoid genetic pathway to the tomato would make it easier and cheaper to produce this compound.”
“We have the tools powerful enough to engineer the genome of any species,” he added.
“The challenge is to know which gene to engineer and where.”
H0wever, getting to the point where we can mass produce spicy tomatoes could take quite a long time. “Since we don’t have solid data about the expression patterns of the capsaicinoid pathway in the tomato fruit, we have to try alternative approaches,” Agustin Zsögön explained.
“One is to activate candidate genes one at a time and see what happens, which compounds are produced. We are trying this [at the moment] and a few other things.”