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Genome Editing Offers Marketable Wild Tomato

Groundcherry plant

Groundcherry plant (pixel2013, Pixabay)

1 Oct. 2018. The groundcherry, a wild tomato plant that its devotees say has a delicious and unusual flavor, could be grown on farms for sale to consumers thanks to a genome editing project at two New York research institutes. A team from Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, New York and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island describe their findings in today’s issue of the journal Nature Plants (paid subscription required).

The researchers aim to produce a more-easily grown version of the groundcherry plant, a relative of the tomato, but smaller and grown in a husk. The groundcherry has a sweeter flavor than most tomatoes — compared to a combination of tomato and pineapple — and as described as “tropically intoxicating” by Cold Spring Harbor plant biologist and co-senior author Zachary Lippman. But the plant’s unique flavor is one part of its appeal. According to Boyce Thompson Institute, the plant has an abundance of vitamins B and C, as well as anti-oxidants, heart-healthy phytosterols, and vitamin A precursor beta-carotene.

Groundcherries, however, come with agricultural baggage, almost literally. The plant is grown strung-out on long straggly branches, with the fruit enclosed in a husk. Under optimal conditions, the husks open when the fruit inside is ripe, but environmental conditions, such as high winds, can cause the husks to open prematurely, dropping the fruit and causing damage, as well as increasing the risk of contamination. Even in home gardens, the plants must be closely monitored, which makes wild groundcherries unlikely candidates for large-scale cultivation.

The team from Lippman’s lab at Cold Spring Harbor and Groundcherry and Goldenberry Project at Boyce Thompson Institute led by co-senior author and plant scientist Joyce Van Eck, used the genome editing technique known as Crispr to produce a groundcherry plant with the highly desired fruit, but also with traits that enable the plants to be grown more like regular tomatoes. Crispr, short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is a method for editing genomes based on bacterial defense mechanisms that use RNA to identify and monitor precise locations in DNA. The actual editing of genomes with Crispr in this and most cases uses an enzyme known as Crispr-associated protein 9 or Cas9. RNA molecules guide the editing enzyme to specific genes needing repair.

Tomatoes are a widely studied plant, with well-known desired traits. The researchers used Crispr to modify 3 genes in the groundcherry plant to better resemble those more desirable tomato traits. One edit limits the actions of a gene that produces a hormone regulating flowering of the plant, producing more compact fruit in clusters rather than one-by-one. Another gene edit generates more fruit per stem, while the third edit produces more seedy sections in the fruit.

The researchers say this study is just the first step in producing a more marketable groundcherry, with work continuing on other traits to make it more amenable to large-scale production. The team worked for 2 years on the project so far, achieving improvements in the plant that they say would have taken far longer with traditional breeding practices.

“We feel there is potential for these to become a specialty fruit crop and to be grown on a larger scale in the U.S.,” says Van Eck in a Boyce Thompson Institute statement. The Groundcherry and Goldenberry Project already has several growers throughout New York State lined up to test its new varieties.

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