NORWICH, United Kingdom — A genetically engineered “super” tomato that may have the power to fight Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cancer has been created by British scientists. The modified fruit is packed with vitamin D — which also boosts bones, teeth, and muscles.
Estimates show more than four in 10 Americans may have a vitamin D deficiency, which can increase their risk of developing a host of illnesses. Now, a team at the John Innes Centre in Norwich has engineered a variety of tomato that produces more.
They used a gene editing technique known as CRISPR, enabling them to make precise changes in DNA at specific locations. The procedure blocked the action of an enzyme that normally converts the vitamin to cholesterol.
“We’ve shown that you can biofortify tomatoes with provitamin D3 using gene editing, which means tomatoes could be developed as a plant-based, sustainable source of vitamin D3,” says corresponding author Professor Cathie Martin in a media release.
“Forty percent of Europeans have vitamin D insufficiency and so do one billion people world-wide. We are not only addressing a huge health problem, but are helping producers, because tomato leaves which currently go to waste, could be used to make supplements from the gene-edited lines.”
‘Great news’ for vegetarians and vegans
Fruit and vegetables usually contain minute quantities, with fish and dairy products like eggs providing the most. The essential nutrient improves mood, immunity, and sleep — working side-by-side with calcium. Humans can also absorb vitamin D through exposure to the sun – although too much sun exposure comes with risks, including skin cancer.
The study in Nature Plants showed one tomato would have vitamin D levels equal to two medium-sized eggs or 28 grams of tuna.
“Eating the tomato fruits could help satisfy child and adult daily requirements for vitamin D,” Prof. Martin adds in a statement, according to SWNS.
The gene-editing strategy could also become an option for other crops, such as potatoes, peppers, and chilies.
“Deficiencies in vitamin D impact immune function and inflammation and are associated with increased risk of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, depression, neuro-cognitive decline, dementia and the severity of COVID,” the researchers tell SWNS. “Vitamin D can be synthesized by humans following exposure of skin to sunlight but the major source is dietary.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has helped to highlight the issue of vitamin D insufficiency and its impact on our immune function and general health. The provitamin D enriched tomatoes we have produced offer a much-needed plant-based source of the sunshine vitamin,” says first author of the study, Dr. Jie Li.
“That is great news for people adopting a plant-rich, vegetarian or vegan diet, and for the growing number of people worldwide suffering from the problem of vitamin D insufficiency.”
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.