Purple tomatoes may make UK hungry for GM, says USDA

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Tomato Agriculture

A successful trial of biotech tomatoes with high anthocyanin that saw them increase the life-span of cancer-prone rats could help strengthen the positive side of the GM debate in the UK, says the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.

Although more accepted in the US, debate over the place of biotech crops in the food chain has been fierce in Europe – and especially in the UK. Those who oppose them argue that the long-term effects on human health and the environment cannot be established; and that those most set to benefit are the biotech and food industries.

But according to a GAIN (Global Agriculture Information Network) report by the USDA’s overseas arm, attitudes could soften as consumers see that biotech crops could bring health benefits.

Their optimism hinges on the development of tomatoes that are unusually rich in anthocyanins, antioxidants found in red, blue and purple fruit, by researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK.

The scientists collaborated with others in Italy, Germany and The Netherlands to insert and activate two genes from the snapdragon plant (Antirrhinum) into normal tomato plants, and to add promoter sections of DNA that give high levels of the anthocyanin pigment but let the leaves and stems grow normally.

The result was a deep purple fruit with elevated levels of anthocyanins. When these tomatoes were used in a study involving cancer-prone rats, they were seen to result in a longer life span. The study was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology ​in October.

While the advent of purple tomatoes is not expected to herald “a seismic shift in UK consumer attitudes”​, the publicity on the successful trial “will be helpful in strengthening the more positive side of the biotech debate,”​ wrote Jennifer Wilson, author of the GAIN report. The report has been approved by the US Embassy.

Professor Cathie Martin, one of the tomato team, said when the results of the trial were announced:

“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 with a trait that really offers a potential benefit for all consumers.

The next step, she added, is to take the preclinical data forward to human studies with volunteers, to look at the potential in dietary preventative medicine.

UK government in favour

While the over-riding consumer view of biotech food remains suspicious, certain elements of the UK government have been vociferous in their view that genetic-modification could help alleviate the threat of food supply to a growing population.

The research on the new purple variety was partly funded by the EU’s Fifth and Sixth Framework programmes, and partly by the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Study reference

Nature Biotechnology​October 26 issue. 'Enrichment of tomato fruit with health-promoting anthocyanins by expression of select transcription factors'​Authors: Cathie Martin et al.

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