Genetically Engineered Purple Tomato Could Fight Cancer

By Eliza Strickland | October 27, 2008 10:02 am

purple tomatoUsing a gene from a snapdragon flower, researchers have created a purple tomato rich in antioxidants, and a new study has shown that cancer-prone mice that were fed the altered tomatoes had significantly longer lifespans than those that dined on regular tomatoes. The tomatoes’ purple hue was a side effect of the type of antioxidants produced, called anthocyanins.

The tomatoes produce levels of anthocyanins about on par with blackberries, blueberries and currants, which recent research has touted as miracle fruits. But because of the high cost and infrequent availability of such berries, tomatoes might be a better source, says [lead researcher Cathie] Martin [USA Today].

In the study, published in Nature Biotechnology [subscription required], researchers used genetically engineered mice that typically develop a variety of cancers at a young age, and live an average of 142 days. A diet that included powder from the modified purple tomatoes extended the life span of these mice to an average 182.2 days; some mice lived up to 260 days. Regular tomatoes had no affect on the average life span [Ars Technica].

Professor Martin said: “This is one of the first examples of metabolic engineering that offers the potential to promote health through diet by reducing the impact of chronic disease. And certainly the first example of a GMO [genetically modified organism] with a trait that really offers a potential benefit for all consumers” [BBC News]. However, she stressed that the tomatoes’ beneficial effects must still be proven in humans; if that is determined, it would still take years for the new and improved tomatoes to make it through the regulatory process and onto supermarket shelves.

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Image: Andrew Davis, John Innes Centre

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World
  • Eric

    Do they still taste like tomatoes? Would people want to actually eat them, or would you eat one a day like a medicine, or a shot of robitussin…

  • erik

    Purple tomatoes already exist in nature. Try Purple Crimson or Cherokee Purple heirloom tomates- why the need for a GMO? Dis they even bother to try a naturally occurring variety?

  • Emily

    Does anybody know the name of the purple tomato shown above? The so-called “purple” tomatoes I’ve planted (Cherokee Purple, Black Krim) turn out more a brownish-red, both delicious BTW.

  • dan

    erik,

    just because others are purple does not mean that they are purple for the same reason. GM did introduce the particularly helpful gene.

    Perhaps the other purple tomatoes DO have similar properties. This could be investigated,but not assumed on the basis of color.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ Emily –

    The purple tomato pictured above is actually the genetically modified tomato with the snapdragon genes. I don’t think any “natural” tomatoes currently on the market can match that hue!

  • Anna

    What a marvelous use of GMO, instead of just bigger roses, or showier hollyhocks…with the antioxidant effect in combination with a colorful salad food/fruit as well!

  • http://www.geneticmaize.com Anastasia

    Anna, I agree! Finally a GMO we can sink our teeth into :)
    I can’t wait to make salsa with them.
    This article doesn’t answer a lot of the questions raised by this research.
    For example, in the paper, the researchers say that boosting anthocyanin levels in heirloom varieties wasn’t able to get the levels high enough (as Emily says, they are more brownish red than purple).
    In my blog, Genetic Maize, I’ve attempted to answer those questions as well as raise some new ones. You’re welcome to come on over if you’d like more info.
    http://www.geneticmaize.com/2008/10/purple-tomatoes/

  • Tim

    It is not “the first example of a GMO [genetically modified organism] with a trait that really offers a potential benefit for all consumers”. GMO rice exists that has been modified to produce beta-carotene, a source of vitamin A that naturally occurs in carots. The rice, called golden rice, is a yellow color. More information is available at goldenrice.org.
    Quoting from their website “In developing countries 500,000 people, mainly children, become blind every year, 50% of whom die within a year of becoming blind. Nearly nine million children die of malnutrion every year. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) severely affects the immune system, hence it is involved in many of these children’s deaths in the guise of multiple diseases.”

  • Kevin

    “Do they still taste like tomatoes? Would people want to actually eat them, or would you eat one a day like a medicine, or a shot of robitussin…” If you have cancer, I doubt you’d care too much about what it tastes like. But it is still an interesting question nonetheless. Perhaps they’d be good for everyone.

  • u_gene

    Hi there,
    …just to let you know that they taste like natural, red tomatoes (they are “research tools”, not new superfood,btw). No unpleasant or bitter taste. Many natural “purple” varieties (like Cherokee Purple) do not contain anthocyanins. Their colour (more brownish than purple)is due to high lycopene content and persistent (not broken down) chlorophille. Thanx for your interest. I am one of the authors.

  • Emily

    u-gene….is this new purple tomato that contain anthocyanins available to home gardners? If so, where? If not, when? Thanks

  • u_gene

    Emily! At the moment we are not even allowed to move the tomatoes from our greenhouse. I needed a special authorization just to bring a couple of fruits (not the plants) to London and I was not allowed to cut them …”to avoid accidental release of seeds”! As I said, they are just “research tools” at the moment and, with the widespread hostility around GMO in Europe, they are likely to stay like that for many years.

  • andrew

    > I was not allowed to cut them

    the photo suggests you’re going to have some explaining to do monday morning

  • Gusman

    Hi there, I would Love to start a greenhouse of these purple tomatoes. I have lots of land that would love to use it for the help research, and help fight Cancer.

  • Rick

    how can i get the puple tomatoes or seeds , in usa

    thanks

    Rick

  • Tomek

    maybe in general gmo food should be rigged to have different colors then natural for that type of plant. That way, it’d be easier to tell what has been gmo’ed what hasnt. not a perfect solution (this is for like farmers field) but an idea.

  • http://jimmylavergne@gmail.com Jimmy Lavergne

    Please forward info on how purple tomatoes may be purchased

  • Curious

    But i want a killer tomato!!…:)

  • Sue Brady

    How can I buy these seeds to grow for my own use? Thnks

  • Jumblepudding

    Keep these tomatoes under lock and key if you grow them-if mice start eating them they’ll live forever.

  • AK

    These tomatoes are NOT engineered “to fight cancer” – they are engineered to contain anthocyanins which are already present in lots of other foods, where they presently already “fight cancer” (a highly oversimplistic view of what an anthocyanin does, btw). What makes us think that transferring it to the tomato plant is going to magically cure cancer? It will, at best, do as well as natural blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, eggplants, purple heirloom potatoes, etc. At worst, the genetic remodeling of the plant may have unintended consequences that may cause it to be an unhealthy or unthrifty crop, and it may also cross-pollinate with our biological tomatoes. We have so many varieties of heirloom crops and healthy foods that people do not consider when we talk about health, but since these are not patentable, they are not aggressively marketed, as these GM foods are. By accepting this crop we also surrender another piece of our foodchain to the big-ag businesses whose goal is to control the food supply entirely. See http://www.gmwatch.org/gm-myths/11122-purple-tomato-can-beat-cancer

  • ttr

    Cross pollination of genetically modified crops with ‘state of the environment’ naturally evolved species can and will create ‘Frankenstein’ plants that prove to be quite noxious very quickly. This is the closest thing to ‘Pandora’s Box’ that science has yet not told you about. Every ‘intended result’ implies many unintended consequences through both cross pollination and inadequate studies of the results.

    Nature works these things out over millennia… and we need to take care not to sever the umbilical tie we have to the natural process we are so much apart of.

  • Gauldar

    Science will prove George Carlin wrong. One day… there will be blue food.

  • FreeGM

    Logically and scientifically why would they have “unintended consequences? oh no a tomato that’s half red and half purple. WHAT DO WE DO.

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