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Although some debate exists regarding the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMO), there is no doubt that genetic modification has allowed a number of industries to design crops and other resources with new features or added benefits. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found genetically engineered foods to be as safe as their regularly bred counterparts, maintaining only that such foods must comply with the standards of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and that if a food is significantly different from its conventional counterpart, such as in nutritional value, this information is required to be listed on the product label.1 The FDA also cites that approximately 70–75% of processed foods in US grocery stores may contain ingredients from genetically engineered plants.1
In a specific example, Cathie Martin, PhD, a research scientist at the John Innes Centre, is applying her bioengineering expertise in the creation of healthier tomatoes; she and her team have engineered them to contain high levels of anthocyanins, free radical-fighting pigments.
Martin’s choice to introduce anthocyanins into this commonly eaten food was simple: “We had the tools and knowledge, and [anthocyanins] have been shown to promote health in humans.” Health organizations often promote eating five vegetables or fruits a day but only 23% of consumers actually consume the recommended dose.
“Tomatoes are eaten by many people in ketchup, pizza, etc.,” explained Martin. “So we thought it was a good idea to put anthocyanins into tomatoes.” Tomatoes actually do produce anthocyanins; however, they usually are found only in the leaves, with the exception of a small number of heirloom tomatoes.
Purple Tomato Production
Martin also explained how altering the tomato’s genetics has affected its appearance. “Tomatoes are normally red due to their production of lycopene. In our experiments, the tomatoes still produce lycopene, but also contain anthocyanins, which are blue-purple pigments. This results in a purple tomato,” said Martin.