Resveratrol, a compound produced by a range of plants, has been making headlines over the last year or so, with studies sharply divided on how beneficial said molecule may or may not be to human health. A group of researchers and bioengineers at the John Innes Centre have decided to fall firmly on one side of the fence, announcing that they have discovered a way to make resveratrol in industrial quantities by producing it in genetically modified tomatoes, along with other phenylpropanoids, a group of compounds resveratrol belongs to.
This new technique appears to be so effective that one tomato can be grown to contain enough resveratrol as would be found in 50 bottles of red wine. Genistein, another phenylpropanoid that has been suggested to contribute to the prevention of breast cancer, has also been shown to be able to be highly concentrated in these tomatoes, containing as much as 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) of tofu has.
The protein AtMYB12 is found in a very common U.K. garden plant, Arabidopsis thaliana; it plays an important role in controlling the production of natural compounds vital for the plant’s survival. As explained in a statement: “The protein acts a bit like a tap to increase or reduce the production of natural compounds depending on how much of the protein is present.”
The researchers introduced this protein into a tomato plant – remarkably, it increased the ability of the tomato to produce phenylpropanoids. In addition, it induced the plant into devoting more energy into the production of these natural compounds, including resveratrol. Putting it another way, this protein turned on the resveratrol “tap” at full blast.
Compared to other crops, tomatoes have a high yield for relatively little agricultural input. This research suggests that a vast amount of resveratrol could be produced worldwide with the simple addition of AtMYB12.
“Medicinal plants with high value are often difficult to grow and manage, and need very long cultivation times to produce the desired compounds,” said Dr Yang Zhang, one of the lead researchers of the project, in a statement. “Our research provides a fantastic platform to quickly produce these valuable medicinal compounds in tomatoes.”
As for whether or not resveratrol actually benefits human health, the jury is still out on this one. It’s found in relatively high concentrations in red wine and dark chocolate, and some studies show that resveratrol has anti-cancerous and anti-diabetic effects, as well as contributing to a healthy heart. Other studies have shown that the compound demonstrated improved learning, memory and mood regulation in rats, potentially indicating the same effect may be seen in humans.
All these benefits, of course, does not mean you should down as much red wine or scoff as much dark chocolate as possible – the high sugar content in wine will at the very least reverse the anti-diabetic effects the resveratrol appears to offer. As aforementioned, some studies conclude that this multi-purpose molecule actually has no effect on the health of humans, with no association made between a diet rich in resveratrol and a reduction in the incidence of cancers or heart disease.