Nutrient-grown purple tomatoes have been recognized as safe to grow by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for over a decade. Tomatoes have been genetically modified to produce ten times more antioxidants than existing varieties.
A fascinating study was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology in 2008. The research reported on a type of tomato gene-edited to produce higher amounts of an antioxidant called anthocyanins.
Anthocyanins are found naturally in many foods, such as blueberries and red cabbage. They are responsible for the purple pigment in those foods and have been linked to various health benefits, including a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Particular tomatoes with naturally purple skins have low levels of anthocyanins, but some food scientists wondered if some genetic variation might raise those levels. Two genes were taken from another plant (Snapdragon) and added to a type of purple tomato. The gene enhanced the plant’s ability to produce anthocyanins, resulting in a unique tomato with rich purple flesh.
A 2008 study reported testing the health effects of this anthocyanin-enhanced tomato in mice engineered to develop cancer. Rats fed a diet supplemented with purple tomatoes lived 30% longer than mice fed a regular diet.
“This is one of the first examples of metabolic engineering that offers the ability to promote health through diet by reducing the effects of chronic disease,” plant biologist Cathy Martin said in 2008. And, of course, GMOs [the first example of a genetically modified organism. ] with a feature that offers potential benefits for all consumers.”
After a long time of navigating the regulatory processes, the GM purple tomato is one step closer to market after gaining approval from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). This authorization means that the genetically modified plant is no longer regulated with strict controls that limit where and how it can be grown. It can be safely grown anywhere in the United States, like any other acceptable crop.
“When Kathy and I founded NPS [Norwich Plant Sciences] to bring to market the genetically enhanced, health-promoting purple tomato invented in the UK some 15 years ago, we never imagined it would take this long to get regulatory approval,” Jonathan said. Jones has been working with Martin on marketing the plant for over a decade. “It’s a great day for crop improvement, with USDA approval of a beneficial product after scrutiny of a dossier of detailed information describing its properties.”
The many uses of cultivated tomatoes have been explored over the years. Initially, scientists focused on producing anthocyanin-rich tomato juice that could be tested in clinical settings for cancer or heart disease patients.
However, it still faces many testing and regulatory hurdles before such a product can reach the market. So the first step for Martin and Jones would be to sell the seeds of these purple tomatoes to home growers.
The US approval is the first in the world to allow a genetically modified product to be grown. Martin and Jones hope the tomatoes will soon be approved in the UK.
“We are one step closer to our dream of sharing healthy purple tomatoes with the many people who are excited to eat them,” said Martin. “The best part is that the tomatoes will be for sale in the US, not the UK. But the silver lining of this is that by focusing on domestic growers, we will be consumer-oriented and get the feedback and interest necessary to develop other products you can obtain.