GM Tomatoes Produce Natural Health Compounds

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It's ironic that folks who are hot for supposedly "natural" health promotors, such as resveratrol and genistein, may have to opt for the GMO variety if they want to avoid man-made compounds.

Resveratrol is a chemical found in red wines which reportedly improves cardiovascular health and extends lifespan in animals. Genistein is a flavanoid that supposedly reduces the risk of cancers dependent on steroid hormones particularly breast cancer. It is produced by soybeans and other legumes.

Until recently, in order to obtain theoretically useful amounts of these compounds, it was necessary to either consume unreasonably large amounts of the parent foods; find extracts produced from those foods; or eat laboratory-produced varieties. But that has changed, thanks to work at the John Innes Centre in Norfolk, United Kingdom.

Drs. Yang Zhang and Eugenio Butelli, who work in Professor Cathie Martin's lab at the Centre, have found that by adding a protein and particular genes into tomato plants they could get the tomatoes to produce large amounts of both resveratrol and genistein. The protein they introduced is called AtMYB12, and it activates numerous genes that affect pathways in the tomato plant that are responsible for producing compounds the plants can use (for example, bitter compounds that make a plant less attractive to insects).

Then, the researchers also added genes from grapes and legumes that cause those plants to produce resveratrol and genistein, respectively. The juice of these tomatoes will thus contain both resveratrol and genistein in relatively large amounts. For example, one tomato could produce as much resveratrol as in 50 bottles of red wine, as well as the amount of genistein found in five and one-half pounds of tofu!

"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. Zhang. "Our research provides a fantastic platform to quickly produce these valuable medicinal compounds in tomatoes. Target compounds could be purified directly from tomato juice."