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13th September 2022

Gene-edited tomato can fight cancer and heart disease

U.S. regulators have approved a new purple tomato, genetically engineered to be packed with antioxidants and anthocyanins. The fruit will go on sale in 2023.


genetically modified purple tomato


Norfolk Plant Sciences (NPS) is a spinout company from the John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory, two world-leading research institutes based at Norwich Research Park, Eastern England. Professors Cathie Martin and Jonathan Jones established NPS as the UK's first GM crop company. Since 2008, they have been working to commercialise their research into plants with enhanced health-giving compounds.

This month, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved the company's "Big Purple Tomato" – a new fruit, genetically engineered to alter both its colour and nutritional content. In a Regulatory Status Review published on 6th September, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service confirmed it has "determined that [the] modified tomato is unlikely to pose an increased plant pest risk relative to its comparator."

According to this decision, the purple tomato is no longer subject to rules limiting "Movement of Organisms Modified or Produced through Genetic Engineering." This means that U.S. home growers should be able to purchase seeds and grow the enhanced tomato from spring 2023. Hundreds of potential customers have already expressed their interest via the Big Purple Tomato website.

A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Biotechnology showed that mice fed a diet supplemented with the high-anthocyanin tomatoes achieved a significant extension of lifespan.


purple tomato mice health lifespan


Additional studies have shown that both antioxidants and anthocyanins can reduce incidence of cancer, improve cardiovascular function, and improve health and well-being. Lab studies also suggest these healthy compounds could help alleviate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The approval from regulators has involved a long wait. The NPS team developed their first tomato in 2008, using a precise genetic "on switch" derived from an edible flower, the snapdragon.

"This is fantastic, I never thought I would see this day," said Professor Martin, who has received numerous awards and honours for her work, including an MBE from the Queen in 2013. "We are now one step closer to my dream of sharing healthy purple tomatoes with the many people excited to eat them."

"When Cathie and I founded NPS nearly 15 years ago to bring to market health-promoting, genetically enhanced purple tomatoes, we never thought it would take so long to obtain regulatory approval," said Professor Jonathan Jones of The Sainsbury Laboratory. "This is a red-letter day for crop improvement with approval of a beneficial product by USDA, after careful scrutiny of a detailed information dossier that describes its properties.

"We also look forward to sensible regulatory frameworks for such products in the UK, and effective methods to protect our major crops from disease, using genetics instead of chemistry."

"The bittersweet thing is that the tomatoes will be on sale in America and not the UK as well," added Professor Martin. "But the plus side is that by focusing on home growers, we will be consumer oriented, and we will be able to get feedback and interest needed to develop other products."

"This decision shows how the updates to USDA's regulatory framework will enable independent scientists and small companies to develop and compete on the market with better products, to the benefit of consumers and climate," said Nathan Pumplin, the CEO of Norfolk Plant Sciences' US-based commercial business. "This decision is a big milestone, which brings us much closer to a commercial launch of purple tomatoes. We are optimistic that we can begin limited distribution of purple tomatoes in the US in 2023."




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