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

By Ryan F. Mandelbaum on at

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 industrialised 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?

Featured image: Karl Thomas Moore (Wikimedia Commons)