A GMO Purple Tomato Is Coming to Grocery Aisles
This GMO food aims to sway health-conscious produce shoppers
In December 2004, plant scientist Cathie Martin went to the greenhouse to check on her tomatoes. The tiny fruits, about the size of gumdrops, were still green. These miniature tomatoes, a variety widely used in research labs, normally become red upon ripening. But when Martin came back after Christmas, they were starting to turn purple—just as she’d hoped.
Martin and her colleagues at the John Innes Centre in the U.K. were aiming to make a tomato high in anthocyanin, an antioxidant-rich pigment found in blackberries and blueberries. The team engineered the jewel tone by adding two genes from the snapdragon flower, which act like a switch to turn on the production of anthocyanins. Over the years, Martin and her team have crossed their purple tomatoes with other breeds to make them bigger—and tastier—than the micro variety they initially grew.
Now, the United States Department of Agriculture has decided that their purple tomato can be grown and cultivated in the US. On Sept. 7, the agency issued a statement saying the tomato is “unlikely to pose an increased plant pest risk compared to other cultivated tomatoes” and is not subject to regulation. (This is the main criteria the agency uses to determine whether crops made using biotechnology should be regulated.) Norfolk Plant Sciences, a company cofounded by Martin, plans to roll out a purple cherry tomato in a handful of test markets in 2023. The biotech firm is also working on purple tomato juice, sun-dried tomatoes and beefsteak tomatoes, and plans to sell seeds for backyard gardeners. “We hope people will eventually grow their own,” said Martin.
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