Science Let's Make Tomatoes Spicy With Genetic Engineering, Scientists Proclaim -

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dogs don't dance, they go to heaven
True & Honest Fan


Surely, someone out there has cooked up a shrimp fra diavolo and thought, “mamma mia, this would be much easier if someone genetically modified the tomatoes to be spicy,” right? Right?

A team of scientists in Brazil and Ireland have published an opinion paper arguing exactly that point: that new gene editing techniques could make it easier to engineer spicy tomatoes. But they’re after more than just spicy tomato sauce.

“The idea is to use the tomato as a biofactory, with potential industrial and pharmaceutical applications,” paper author Agustin Zsögön from the Universidade Federal de Viçosa in Brazil told Gizmodo.

The molecules behind spiciness are called capsaicinoids and are produced by 30 species in the Capsicum genus—you know them as hot peppers. People (including me) like hot peppers, and capsaicinoids appear in plenty of delicious cuisines. But they’re also well-known, low-risk painkillers found in creams for arthritis patients, and they’re used in pepper spray as well.

Capsicum is the only genus of plants that naturally produce these molecules, but peppers take a lot of work to cultivate, according to the paper published Monday in the journal Trends in Plant Science. The amount of capsaicinoids in peppers can vary widely between fruits, too, based on variety of factors.

The tomato, on the other hand, is an easy-to-control model organism that has already been the subject of plenty of genetic modification studies—like the genetically modified tomato that expresses the antifreeze proteins of coldwater fish. Most importantly, tomatoes, which only split off from peppers on the evolutionary tree 11 million years ago, still have the machinery to make capsaicinoids.

“The tomato has the genes,” said Zsögön. “You just need to activate them in the right order in the right places.”

Rather than splice new genes into the tomatoes, researchers would need only activate existing genes using gene-editing tools like TALENs or the well-known CRISPR/Cas9. The tomato could itself become a factory for producing capsaicinoids, or, yes, companies could just market spicy tomatoes.

Should we do this? Not today—Zsögön pointed out that there are still questions about whether CRISPR/Cas9 can unintentionally edit other, unintended parts of genomes, an issue that would naturally need to be worked out first. But engineering tomatoes to be spicy could be “the next step in the fascinating story of pungent crops,” according to the paper.

Additionally, you might ask whether the availability of capsaicinoids is an especially pressing issue in food production versus, say, feeding people or fixing the ails of industrialized agriculture, many of which stem from GMO-producing agribusiness giants. To that I say... but wouldn’t it be nice to have a spicy tomato?


Standing in the school hallway.
Surely I'm not the only one who immediately thought tomacco?
Doesn't tomacco actually exist via grafting, which is possible since tomato and tobacco plants are both from the "nightshade" Solanaceae genus?

This article from 2003 talks about a Simpsons fan in Oregon who created such a plant, where the tomatoes looked normal but were probably too poisonous to consume due to absurd amounts of nicotine.

Once again, reality has imitated "The Simpsons." Last year the Albuquerque Dukes became the Albuquerque Isotopes after a 2001 episode of the show depicted Homer Simpson protecting his beloved triple-A baseball team the Springfield Isotopes from the paws of an unnamed, franchise-thievin' Albuquerque mayor. Homer spoke, and we listened.
Now a "Simpsons" fan in Oregon has crossed a tomato plant with a tobacco plant to create a new bit of weirdo flora he calls a tomacco (pronounced tuh-MACK-o). His inspiration: a 1999 episode of "The Simpsons" in which Homer gets rich by creating a tomato-tobacco hybrid that tastes nasty but is wildly addictive.
"I knew it was scientifically possible," said Rob Baur, tomacco creator and an operations analyst for a wastewater treatment plant. "I thought, 'What the heck, let's try it and see what happens.' "
He also remembered reading about a real-life 1959 experiment when he was in a graduate chemistry class at Western Washington University, in which researchers successfully crossed a tomato plant with tobacco.
Baur grafted a tomato plant onto tobacco roots and, doh!, he had a real-life tomacco.

Poisonous, maybe
Creating the freaky veggie wasn't as easy as Homer made it look. Earlier in the summer Baur grafted a tobacco plant onto a tomato root and the graft fell off. He tried a few more times and finally got a tomacco that not only lived but thrived.
"The plant looks perfectly normal," Baur said. "It's blooming."
The tomacco has even borne fruit: two red globes that look like regular tomatoes you would purée into marinara sauce.
But don't eat them like they did on "The Simpsons." Baur believes the tomacco fruits are poisonous because they may contain a fatal dose of nicotine.
"I left one of the tomaccos on the kitchen table and my wife yelled at me," he said. "I have no idea what to do with these things. It's like an atomic bomb. What do you do with them after you have set one off in the desert?"
Joran Viers, horticulture agent for the Bernalillo County Cooperative Extension Service, confirms that while such a graft would be difficult to do, it is possible. Tomatoes and tobacco belong to the same plant family, which also includes eggplant and the poisonous nightshade.
"I'm not sure why you would want to do that, though," he said.
Viers also said he would be surprised if the tomacco fruit was poisonous. "With grafts, the fruit you get tends to be characteristic of the grafted-on part, not the root."
Baur is about to find out if his tomacco is dangerous. On Friday he took the fruit to a forensics lab in nearby Portland, Ore., where its nicotine content was tested. The results will be back Monday.
The same lab tested the tomacco plant's leaves last week and determined there was nicotine in the leaves, which means the tomacco plant is a true hybrid and not just a cartoon-inspired Frankenstein.
"Whether smoking them would, uh, fulfill a need, I don't know. We didn't burn them," said Raymond Grimsbo, the forensic scientist who performed the test and director of Intermountain Forensic Laboratories.

World comes knocking
At least one commentator has accused Baur of having w-a-a-a-a-a-ay too much time on his hands.
But Baur said his tomacco experiment wasn't just about being deliberately wacky, or about being a science geek with nothing better to do.
He said he liked the anti-tobacco message of the "Simpsons" tomacco episode, which ended with a tobacco company desperately trying to buy the tomacco formula from Homer.
"It shows tobacco companies for what they really are and how stupid it is that even though this stuff tastes bad, you're addicted to it and will do almost anything to get it," he said.
The local Fox affiliate, no doubt seeing rampant promotional possibilities for the jewel of the network's lineup, did a story on Baur and his tomacco. Since then, the global media have descended on Baur's town of Lake Oswego, Ore., population 30,576.
He has been interviewed by CNN, the BBC, an Israeli magazine and a Canadian TV station. News of the tomacco has also been all over the Web, on blogs, science and technology sites and "Simpsons" fan sites.
Baur is amazed by the response. "I got a patent once for a new way to ferment sludge," he said. "No one from Albuquerque called me about that."
But this is "The Simpsons." And like you, Rob, we here in Albuquerque altered our world to make it more like the animated one we see on TV, in Matt Groening's Springfield.
We, too, understand what it's like to find truth in a cartoon.
Does Baur plan to bring any more "Simpsons" episodes to life? Maybe brew up a Flaming Moe?
"I'll review my Simpsons DVDs and see if there's any more 'Simpsons' science I can do," he said.


Hobo King of the Parsnip Pixies.
True & Honest Fan
We've been fucking with fruits and veggies for years to begin with; hundred of years of selective breeding has resulted in all kinds foods becoming edible. Bananas, watermelons, corn...I think the medical twist might be pushing it though. Let's get one right before jumping to the next one.

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