Scientists produce GM tomatoes that could help fight cancer

A study led by John Innes Centre researchers in the UK has led to the mass production of natural compounds in a single, genetically modified fruit - a tomato.

These compounds included life-extending resveratrol found in wine and genistein found in tofu, which offered cancer-preventing benefits.

When a protein called AtMYB12, normally found in a garden weed called thale cress (arabidopsis thaliana) was introduced, scientists found that the protein activated a wide set of genes responsible for natural compound production in the tomato plant.

The AtMYB12 acted like a plug or tap that scientists could control to reduce or increase the amount of natural compounds that could benefit the plant and humans, in turn.

The researchers noted that the introduction of the AtMYB12 protein not only increased the ability of the plant to create the resveratrol and genistein, it also influenced the ability of the plant to devote more carbon and energy in the compound creation.

"Medicinal plants with high value are often difficult to grow and manage, and need very long cultivation times to produce the desired compounds. Our research provides a fantastic platform to quickly produce these valuable medicinal compounds in tomatoes. Target compounds could be purified directly from tomato juice," quoted co-author Dr Yang Zhang.

The team of UK scientists, who invented the tomatoes said, only a single tomato developed by them contained as much of the grape compound resveratrol as 50 bottles of red wine.

The antioxidant chemical is said to combat heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.

The compounds are phenylpropanoids like resveratrol, the compound found in wine which reportedly extends lifespan in animal studies, and genistein, the compound found in soybean, which had been suggested to play a role in prevention of steroid-hormone related cancers such as breast cancer.

Earlier studies indicated lycopene in tomatoes might help in cancer prevention and further research is continuing. The same procedure could in the future be used to mass produce other natural occurring compounds that formed the basis of many medications.

The introduction of the protein to tomatoes boosted levels of phenylpropanoids, a family of organic compounds that increased a range of plant chemicals.

According to researcher Dr Yang Zhang, as tomatoes were so easy to grow, the health-giving compound could quickly be churned out on an industrial scale.

"We believe our design idea could also be applied to other compounds such as terpenoids and alkaloids, which are the major groups of medicinal compounds from plants.''