Scientists Explore Genetically Engineering Spicy Tomatoes

Diners and farmers alike may benefit from this research

Tomatoes
Tomatoes aren't spicy — but a group of scientists are working on changing that.
Gaurav Dhwaj Khadka/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / January 11, 2020 2:36 pm

As anyone who’s ever eaten a tomato knows, they’re not the spiciest fruit out there, nor are they spicy at all. There are plenty of dishes featuring tomatoes that crank up the heat somewhat, but that’s generally done via other factors — whether that’s adding spices or blending in peppers or some other ingredient. But what if that could all change? What if science could produce a spicy tomato?

Based on a new report from Discover, that day may soon be upon us. Nathaniel Scharping writes that researchers have explored genetically engineering tomatoes to be closer to another species of plant that they share a common ancestor with: peppers.

The two diverged around 19 million years ago, not that long, evolutionarily speaking, and the recent sequencing of the tomato genome revealed that they actually still possess the genetic framework to produce capsaicin.

Capsaicin, for those curious, is the compound that makes peppers spicy. And, as Scharping writes, there are solid reasons for modifying tomatoes in this way beyond simply having the means to do so: tomatoes are much easier to grow than peppers, opening up numerous possibilities for farming.

Scharping writes that the scientists are still researching the full scope of what might be needed to alter the tomato’s genetic material, “with the goal of discovering the complete pathway.” It certainly seems like the world is closer to tomatoes that can be measured on the Scoville scale than ever before.

That said, the world is full of stories about what can go wrong when science is pushed to its limits. Thankfully, there’s never been such a cautionary tale applied to tomatoes — oh, wait.

Perhaps we’ve reached a state of life imitating art. Or perhaps we’re just on the cusp of spicy tomato sauce being that much easier to make.

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