Monday, October 27, 2008

Holy purple tomatoes!

One way to get people 'eating healthy' is to make food healthier - and that is exactly what european researchers have done by genetically modifying a tomato (published in Nature Biotechnology). They inserted two snapdragon genes, allowing the fruit to over-express anthocyanins, which have beneficial effects against a host of human diseases, including cancer. Of course, there was one side effect: anthocyanins are pigment molecules, so the tomatoes turned purple.

Anthocyanins are a kind of flavonoid, a group of chemicals most commonly known for their antioxidant activity. Anthocyanins from black raspberries have been shown to stall the growth of pre-malignant cells, make cancer cells die faster, reduce inflammatory mediators that initiate tumor onset, inhibit growth of new blood vessels that nourish tumors, and minimize cancer-induced DNA damage. In 2007, berry-derived anthocyanin studies entered the human clinical trial stage. The 'super tomato' contains levels of anthocyanins similar to blackberries and blueberries. To further test the value of this tomato, researchers fed it to mice engineered to have a high cancer risk, and found that eating the tomato significantly expanded their average lifespan.

“Most people do not eat 5 portions of fruits and vegetables a day, but they can get more benefit from those they do eat if common fruit and veg can be developed that are higher in bioactive compounds," says Prof Cathie Martinfrom the John Innes Centre, lead author on the paper , in a press release. "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. The next step will be to take the preclinical data forward to human studies with volunteers to see if we can promote health through dietary preventive medicine strategies."

While foods like this aren't going to make you invincible if you don't eat well in general, boosting compounds like these could make it a little easier to lower your risk of long-term diseases like heart disease and obesity. Of course, I'll be impressed when they make a flavanoid-filled sugar or antioxidant-rich ice cream. Make it really easy for us!