Biotechnology

How Can I Preorder a Crate of Spicy Tomatoes?

Revving up pepper hotness in tomatoes using CRISPR genome-editing

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HotTomato
Trends in Plant Science

The spaghetti sauce recipe from Chef Anthony Bourdain uses 20 plum tomatoes and a pinch of crushed red peppers (personally I would prefer much more than a pinch of pepper). Now biotech researchers are suggesting that cooks could skip a step and simply use tomatoes engineered to produce their own pepper spice.

The ancestors of tomatoes and chili peppers went down their separate evolutionary paths nearly 20 million years ago. Derived from tiny pea-sized berries, tomatoes became milder as Native American farmers in South and Central America began domesticating tomatoes more than 8,000 years ago. 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).

Now a team of researchers led by Agustin Zsögön, a plant biologist at the Federal University of Viçosa in Brazil, reports in the journal Trends in Plant Science that the genes for producing spicy capsaicin are dormant in tomatoes and could likely be reawakened via biotechnology. Instead of splicing new genes into tomatoes, researchers aim at activating existing genes in the plants. 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.

Their main goal is not to get "hot" tomatoes into the produce aisle at your local grocery, but instead to use tomatoes to mass produce capsaicins for pharmaceutical purposes and/or as a pest deterrent. They note that yields of hot peppers seldom exceed 3 tons per hectare in about 4–5 months of growing, whereas is not uncommon to reach 110 tons per hectare for tomatoes during a 120-day cropping cycle.

The good news is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared that it will not generally regulate genome-edited crop varieties. Therefore spicy tomatoes and hundreds of other genome-edited crop varieties now under development should be able to get to market sooner by escaping the ridiculously anti-scientific regulatory system that has so far slowed and stymied the development of beneficial biotech crops. I hope to dine on a "hot" tomato and melted cheese sandwich some day soon.

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  1. Bring on the heat.

    And while you’re at it, send me a crate of tomacco as well.

    1. Ron has gone over to the dark side on this one. The only case for a border wall is slowing the incursion of oral sadists bent on making pain a food group.

      It’s time for an Alamo -like stand in defense of the Yankee palate, for CRISPR capisaicin inflation is cultural imperialism at its worst. We must never forget that Aztec social engineers used chilli pepper fumigation to torture wayward children into submission

  2. Why don’t scientists simply breed humans who can taste pepper where there is none? Don’t you see the slippery slope you’d have us all descending???

    1. Has science gone too far?

    2. Not until science modifies humans to have gigantic tatas. Men and women alike.

      1. That would be the end of civilization as men spend all day in a cave playing with their tatas.

      2. Spoiler alert: that technology is already available, BUCS.

  3. Now biotech researchers are suggesting that cooks could skip a step and simply use tomatoes engineered to produce their own pepper spice.

    That sounds like adding several thousand steps.

    1. Though it sounds like the real purpose is more industrial.

      Also, I like the actual pepper flavor as well, and moving away from that might keep the heat, but lose something in the process. Chilis are good, damn it.

      1. Right? What’s the point of making a peppery tomato when you can just add some pepper?

        1. Yield and growing time, as pointed out in TFA.

          1. Yes, and it seems like the real intention is to have a means to get extract rather than particularly as a food. Though, I’d be willing to try a spicy tomato given the chance. I like chilis, but I ain’t afraid of new foods.

            1. Though, I’d be willing to try a spicy tomato given the chance.

              Personally, I’m looking forward to my addiction to spicy BLTs, especially if the T stands for tomacco.

        2. What’s the point of making a peppery tomato when you can just add some pepper?

          Grant money.

          The idea that it’s got something to do with yield is a gimmick. Peppers already out-produce tomatoes by infinity-fold and the increased yield from tomatoes is largely from water, in which capsaicin is insoluble.

          This is a sales pitch, give them the money and they’ll engineer a goose that will lay golden eggs. The positive spin is that at least they didn’t promise a silver bullet for cancer.

          1. This is a sales pitch, give them the money and they’ll engineer a goose that will lay golden eggs.

            Being more favorable, it may be slightly more like prospecting. Give them money and they’ll dig a hole and see if they strike the capsaicin motherload.

  4. Here’s a headline for the Ladybot of Reason to steal:

    I call this the Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! lol

  5. When are Arctic Apples finally hitting the market? I want them!

    1. They’ve been on the market for a while now in the midwest. I understand that sales are low though.

      1. c & J: Actually, they seem to be doing OK. The results of Reason’s taste test here.

        1. Ron, are you doing ODIN’s biohacking 101 class?

  6. I thought the border wall was meant to keep spicy hot tomatoes away. (American ladies don’t want foreign competition.)
    Now it seems it might be more about protecting an emerging domestic production of tasty temptations.

    1. Wait, the wall is also keeping out Latina women? THIS IS A WAR CRIME

  7. They note that yields of hot peppers seldom exceed 3 tons per hectare in about 4?5 months of growing, whereas is not uncommon to reach 110 tons per hectare for tomatoes during a 120-day cropping cycle.

    I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that the majority of the 110 ton yields by tomatoes is predominantly water while the capsaicin molecule is ‘relatively insoluble’ in water. Considering the 3 tons per hectare outproduces (in terms of % capsaicin dry weight) the 110 tons per hectare by infinity-fold, this seems like an exercise in futility. Maybe a novelty to have spicy tomatoes off the vine, but considering the relative ease by which additional acres of peppers can be farmed, it seems like a waste.

  8. All this just sounds like ‘spice to taste’, with extra steps.

    1. Actually, it’s ‘spice to taste’ where ‘taste’ is ‘get me and my lab more federal grant money’.

  9. Those in favor of developing antisense DNA sequences to halt the expression of CRISPER Carolina Reaper & Habanero genes in their neighborhood may signal their virtue and good taste by sending cold cash to mnestheus@paypal.com

  10. The FDA should ban tabasco before it leads to tomacco addiction.

  11. Where are the stories of them gene editing weed man?!

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