Purple tomatoes genetically tweaked to be brimming with antioxidant pigments could be making their way to the dinner plates of gardening Americans by next spring thanks to a recent decision by the US regulators.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recently signed off a review that will allow people in the US to purchase seeds and grow the “Big Purple Tomato” developed by Norfolk Plant Sciences (NPS) from early 2023.
The genetically modified (GM) tomato was given the go-ahead after regulators found that it did not pose an increased plant pest risk compared to its standard red tomato cousins.
“This is fantastic, I never thought I would see this day. We are now one step closer to my dream of sharing healthy purple tomatoes with the many people excited to eat them,” Professor Cathie Martin, mastermind of the Big Purple Tomato from the John Innes Centre in the UK, said in a statement.
The funky-colored tomatoes were first developed by Professor Martin and a team from the John Innes Centre in 2008. They were created using a relatively simple genetic modification that instructed the plants to produce high levels of anthocyanins, the rich pigment you can find in foods such as blueberries, red cabbage, and a bunch of other foods often dubbed “superfoods”.
The classic red tomato already contains genes to produce anthocyanins, but they are not "turned on" in most fruits. There are also some purple-skinned tomato varieties, although their flesh doesn't contain high levels of anthocyanins.
To turn on the innate anthocyanin-producing ability of the tomato, scientists added two genes from snapdragons, a vibrantly colored flower native to North America, Europe, and North Africa.
Not only does it look pretty, but there has also been some evidence that high levels of anthocyanins are linked to certain health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease. However, not all of anthocyanins’ purported health care claims have been verified and some argue they don’t live up to the hype.
The path to obtaining this regulatory approval has been a long and bumpy one. As Professor Jonathan Jones of the Sainsbury Laboratory explains: “When Cathie and I founded NPS nearly 15 years ago to bring to market health-promoting, genetically enhanced purple tomatoes, invented in the UK, we never thought it would take so long to obtain regulatory approval.”
GM tomatoes have been around for decades, but they have proved to be a difficult market for scientists and entrepreneurs to master. The 1990s saw the rise of the Flavr Savr, a tomato that had been genetically modified to have a longer shelf life, increased fungal resistance, and a slightly different texture.
It was given FDA approval in 1994 after their review found it was “as safe as tomatoes bred by conventional means” and the tomatoes promptly found themselves on supermarket shelves. However, the venture flopped within three years and production of the Flavr Savr ceased by 1997. Anxious about the concept of so-called “Frankenfood,” the US public just couldn't find the taste for GM tomatoes.
Over 25 years later, perhaps appetites have changed and the US is now ready for the Big Purple Tomato.