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Genetically Modified Purple Tomato Makes Its Way to US Gardens

Norfolk Plant Sciences introduces a new Purple Tomato
Norfolk Plant Sciences introduces a new Purple Tomato. Credit: Sasa Woodruff / Boise State Public Radio

A new genetically modified purple tomato is now available to home gardeners in the U.S. It took twenty years to develop, borrowing color genes from snapdragon flowers. Moreover, the tomato is rich in anthocyanin, a beneficial compound.

The Purple Tomato is now being sold directly to home gardeners, marking the first time a GMO crop is marketed to this demographic. Previously, such crops were primarily available to commercial producers.

Norfolk’s aim is to alter Americans’ views on GMO foods. A 2020 Pew Research study revealed that most Americans perceive GMOs as less healthy with only seven percent viewing them as healthier options compared to non-modified foods.

Nathan Pumplin, CEO of Norfolk Healthy Produce, a subsidiary of Norfolk Plant Sciences, states, “We aim to show with this product and with this company that there’s a lot of benefits that can go to consumers through biotechnology, better taste, better nutrition as prime examples.”

Purple tomatoes can fight cancer-like diseases

The mastermind behind the Purple Tomato is Cathie Martin, a biochemist trained at the University of Cambridge. Around two decades ago, she embarked on a mission to create a transgenic tomato by incorporating DNA from a purple snapdragon, an edible flower unrelated to tomatoes.

Her objective was to produce a tomato rich in anthocyanins, the compounds responsible for the vibrant hues of blueberries, blackberries, eggplants, and purple cabbage, earning them the label of superfoods, as reported by LAist 89.3.

Studies have highlighted anthocyanins’ potential anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. As antioxidants, they play a crucial role in neutralizing harmful molecules in the body, which can otherwise harm healthy cells and are associated with aging and illness.

It’s common for tomatoes to produce these beneficial antioxidants, but usually, they’re found more in the stems and leaves than in the fruit, explains Pumplin.

What Cathie Martin did was essentially activate this antioxidant production in the tomato itself. Martin’s approach builds upon a technique developed in the 1980s by which a bacterium naturally inserts its DNA into host organisms.

This process can occur naturally, as seen in sweet potatoes, which contain DNA from agrobacterium, making them technically transgenic—plants that carry genetic material from two different organisms.

Turning the color of a tomato to purple

Martin identified the gene responsible for activating and deactivating the purple color in the snapdragon flower. She then transferred this gene into bacteria. Subsequently, the tomato could absorb the foreign genetic material and manifest this new trait.

Moreover, Pumplin explained that it’s truly a remarkable demonstration of comprehending natural processes and leveraging them to fulfill our requirements.

According to Pumplin, Norfolk’s purple tomato contains as much anthocyanin per weight as blueberry or eggplant. Given that Americans consume more tomatoes annually, this makes the nutritional advantages more readily available.

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