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Scientists Want To Engineer A Spicy Tomato

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Scientists have long known that tomatoes and chili peppers were sort of distant cousins in the food. Scientists believe these two types of fruit (scientifically speaking) share an ancestor from which they split off more than 19 million years ago. Despite having split apart so long ago, tomatoes and chili peppers still share some common traits, and scientists want to use them to engineer a spicy tomato.

There are some major differences between the two plants. Tomatoes developed into friendly, nutrient-rich and fruit-like harvests, while the chili planet went “defensive” by developing capsaicinoids, which make it spicy and protect it from predators. However, a team of scientists still thinks the latest gene-editing techniques can be used to combine traits of the two plants together.

A new study describing the technique was published on Jan. 7 in the journal Trends in Plant Science. The research doesn’t aim to develop an entirely new type of spicy tomato, but rather, to produce large quantities of capsaicinoids for commercial use. The molecules of the materials are rich in nutritional and antibiotic characteristics, which are normally used to make painkillers and pepper spray used for protection.

“Engineering the capsaicinoid genetic pathway to the tomato would make it easier and cheaper to produce this compound, which has very interesting applications,” senior author and plant biologist Agustin Zsögön of Brazil’s Federal University of Viçosa said in a press release. “We have the tools powerful enough to engineer the genome of any species; the challenge is to know which gene to engineer and where.”

To engineer a spicy tomato, the scientists are actually trying to manipulate capsaicinoids, which cause irritation and a burning sensation in humans and other mammals. Chili peppers and the burning sensation they cause protect them from mammals that would otherwise eat them, although birds don’t have a reaction to those molecules. Scientists have found 23 types of capsaicinoids in chili peppers.

Previous gene identification work has shown that tomatoes also have genes which are essential for capsaicinoid production, but they don’t have the necessary power to convert these genes into those molecules. Now scientists want to engineer a spicy tomato which will have the ability to produce capsaicinoids.

“In theory you could use these genes to produce capsaicinoids in the tomato,” Zsögön said. “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. One is to activate candidate genes one at a time and see what happens, which compounds are produced. We are trying this and a few other things.”

Now that the researchers have sequenced the chili pepper genome, they believe they will be able to engineer a spicy tomato. According to the researchers, their study will help scientists understand the evolution of plants and their unique botanical traits.

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