Can we engineer Spicy tomatoes?

A balanced diet should mainly consist of foods geared toward meeting our energetic needs, which processed foods with little nutritional value do not. However, foods that do not contain processed sugars can certainly meet our energetic needs as well as our need for something sweet. Image courtesy of USDA via flickr

Chili peppers, often conjuring both tears of pain and pleasure, serve an important role in the culinary exploits of many cultures. Less well known, however, are the medicinal properties of the compound responsible for the distinct heat of chilis. Peppers make a molecule called capsaicin, which has anti-inflammatory and weight-loss properties. But what if other plants could be modified to produce capsaicin as well? Could we make spicy tomatoes? Augustin Zsögön and his team have recently discovered genes in tomatoes that encode for capsaicin, suggesting that the “spicy tomato” might become a reality. Not only would chefs reap the benefits of a culinary marvel, but scientists would also have an easier time producing capsaicin to research as tomatoes are easier to breed and cultivate than typical Capsicum plants. The process of genetically engineering tomatoes, however, presents certain challenges. Many cellular components combine forces to make the process possible. “Enzymes that are acting in the mitochondrion, cytosol, and chloroplast all need to work together in sequence,” Zsögön said. Consequently, the production of capsaicin involves the manipulation of multiple genes and an understanding of how each gene affects the overall pathway. Zsögön makes it clear that any commercial opportunities would be unintentional, though welcome, consequences of his team’s research. “We don’t really care about the money, we just really like the ideas and get carried away,” he said, laughing. Whether for monetary or gastronomical purposes, spicy tomatoes are sure to appease everyone’s appetite.