GM tomato comes up smelling of roses

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Tomato

What do you get when you cross a tomato with a lemon basil plant?

No, it's not a joke. Researchers from Israel's Newe Ya-ar research Centre were quite serious when they set out to genetically modify the flavour and aroma of tomatoes by expressing the ocimum basilicum geraniol synthase gene. The result, they report in Nature Biotechnology​, is a fruit that smells a little like roses and lemons and was preferred by most of the untrained taste panelists to ordinary tomatoes. The finding could result in the development of new tomato-based flavours, and could also have implications for shelf-life. The transgetic tomatoes were found to have higher levels of volatile terpenoids that some say have antimicrobial and antifungal qualities. Lead researcher Efraim Lewinsohn told that the study basically involved diverting the metabolic flow from the biosynthesis of the red pigment lycopene to aroma compounds. "It is therefore conceivable that other carotenoid-containing fruits and vegetables will display a similar effect if the foreign gene was expressed in them."​ The technology has not yet been licensed to any company, nor was any company was involved in the conception of the study. But Lewinsohn said: "I hope that these tomatoes or similar ones will be commercialized soon."​ One draw-back of the variety, however, is that the transgentic fruit also contained less lycopene, the red pigment and antioxidant carotenoid of which tomatoes are the main natural source. There is increasing awareness of lycopene amongst consumers, especially since it has recently been researched for its health benefits, including its potential to reduce risk of certain cancers and heart disease. It is also used as a natural food colouring in Europe. Israel is one of the prime tomato-growing regions, and it follows that the country's research institutes and food companies are keenly investigating ways to optimize the plant's properties. The publication of the Newe Ya-ar study coincides with news this week that the Volcani Institute has bred a self-dehydrating cherry tomato with exceptionally high levels of lycopene, using conventional methods. Each 1g dried cherry tomato was seen to contain 1mg of lycopene, plus other tomato phytonutrients. For comparison, an ordinary cherry tomato contains a fraction of a mg of lycopene; one big 100g tomato contains around 4mg. The IP behind these dried fruit is held by Tomasins International, which is targeting the gourmet food and retail sector. LycoRed is to market the fruit as an ingredient for lycopene delivery in health and functional foods. Reference: Journal: Nature Biotechnology​ Title: "Enrichment of tomato flavor by diversion of the early plastidial terpenoid pathway"​ Doi: 10.1038/nbt1312 Authors: Rachel Davidovich-Rikanati, Yaron Sitrit, Yaakov Tadmor, Yoko Iijima, Natalya Bilenko, Einat Bar, Bentsi Carmona, Elazar Fallik, Nativ Dudai, James E Simon, Eran Pichersky and Efraim Lewinsohn

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