Scientists have created a genetically modified tomato that has been shown to extend the lifespans of mice with cancer. It offers the prospect of creating a fruit that is rich in even more properties that are beneficial to health.
How the Tomato's Genes were Modified
This particular tomato was genetically modified with genes from the snapdragon flower. The flower is already known to be high in anthocyanins. These are pigments, common in most berry fruits. Previous research has shown that anthocyanins have some protective properties against some cancers and heart disease.
To genetically modify the tomato, scientists took two snapdragon genes and turned them on in the tomato plants. These genes are responsible for the production of anthocyanins.
The work was carried out by scientists from the John Innes Centre in Norwich in the UK and was published in Nature Biotechnology.
Genetically modified tomatoes were then fed to mice that had been bred to be susceptible to cancer. The results showed that those that had a diet supplemented by the purple GM tomatoes survived significantly longer than those that were fed normal red tomatoes.
It is not known exactly what is happening at the genetic level to offer this protective effect, but anthocyanins have been shown to slow down the growth of colon cancer cells.
Whilst the scientists are not at the stage of feeding GM tomatoes to cancer patients, testing on humans is one of the next steps.
GM Food and Health
The genetically modified tomato may offer a more immediate health benefit, in making a healthy food even better for us. Of course you may well ask what's the point of making a healthy food even healthier? Surely if people eat more healthy food, there wouldn't be a need to genetically modify plants? But that's just the problem, according to some scientists and nutritionists. People just don't eat the recommended daily diet of fruit and vegetables that are necessary for good health.
A way of getting round that problem is by loading one of the most popular fruits there is with lots of health-giving properties. Although many would argue that even this shouldn't be a replacement for a normal healthy and balanced diet. It's also very unlikely that the genetically modified tomato would be seen on supermarket shelves in the UK, where it was created, as there is considerable opposition to genetically modified foods.
It is still far too early to be able to say that a genetically modified tomato can help treat cancer. The scientists have shown a very interesting result in mice, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it will be replicated in humans. Much more testing of the GM tomato will determine whether anthocyanins gained through diet can help protect against this potentially fatal disease.