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Spicy Tomatoes? A Marriage Made in a Lab

Gene-editing, a process in which scientists alter genes in living organisms with the goal of targeting certain traits, is now being applied to tomatoes in hopes of creating “spicy” fruits that contain Capsicum — which gives the hot taste to peppers, Quartz reports.


The gene-editing process, called CRISPR, gained worldwide attention in late 2018 when a Chinese scientist announced he had gene-edited a baby. Scientists said the goal of gene-editing tomatoes was to create a food that would offer more anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and weight-loss properties — with a spicy kick.

CRISPR is the acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, and it’s probably going to be showing up in the news more and more as scientists tinker with the DNA of a wide range of organisms. While their goal is to make living things better in some way, what they’re not publicizing so much are the downsides of what they’re doing.

For example, researchers at the U.K.'s Wellcome Sanger Institute studying a specific type of gene-editing called CRISPR-CAS9 found unexpected DNA deletions and insertions were occurring. In other studies, some companies using CRISPR have said they're already on the lookout for large and small DNA deletions (including one company using the technology to make pig organs that could be transplanted into humans).

In other gene-editing news, there are three CRISPR startups working on technologies for editing the genome right inside your body, without having to take out and reinsert the cells.

When they began their work, there was plenty of conversation about the ethics of tinkering with human genes — perhaps even to create certain personality or physical traits — and it appeared that it was generally agreed that such human experimentation should not be done. But now that it has been done, the question is where will they stop? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, like the tomatoes in the news today, the foods you eat are being experimented on regularly. Unlike genetically engineered (GE) foods, which may have genes from other species inserted, there is nothing taken out or added to gene-edited crops.

What’s really worthy of notation, however, is that foods produced via gene-editing are not subject to regulation by the USDA or other regulatory agencies  — although an advisory board advised that gene-edited foods could not be labeled organic. 

To date, the technology has been used to produce soybeans with altered fatty acid profiles, potatoes that take longer to turn brown and potatoes that remain fresher longer and do not produce carcinogens when fried — and now, tomatoes that taste like peppers.