- Scientists in the United Kingdom have used gene “editing” to cultivate a tomato variety filled with provitamin D3 which the body can convert into vitamin D. This achievement could offer a plant-based source of vitamin D3 suitable for vegans and vegetarians.
- Gene editing targeted an enzyme in tomatoes, normally converting provitamin D3 into cholesterol. The modification disrupted this process, leading to a tomato rich in provitamin D3. The intention is to offer a vitamin D quantity comparative to 28 grams of tuna or the equivalent of two eggs.
- Vitamin D deficiency is a global health issue given the critical roles this vitamin plays in supporting bone strength, contributing to normal nerve and muscle function, and aiding immune defenses. With this breakthrough, a plant-based source of vitamin D, traditionally found more in animal products, could help tackle this problem.
- The research team used CRISPR technology for gene editing, which did not introduce any foreign DNA into the tomato plant and found no unintended effects on other tomato genes.
- Provitamin D3 levels were found to be especially high in the tomato plant leaves, often discarded. Vegans could potentially benefit from extracting the valuable nutrient from these greens, and it could also incentivize growers monetarily. More research is needed to comprehend this novel tomato’s potential benefits fully.
Scientists in the United Kingdom have harnessed the art of gene “editing” to cultivate a tomato variety packed with provitamin D3. It is a form that the body can process into vitamin D.
Understanding the Gene Modification Process
The gene editing was focused on an enzyme in tomatoes which normally converts provitamin D3 into cholesterol. However, thanks to the modification, the process was disrupted, leading to a tomato fruit rich in the precursor.
The experiment was such a success that it’s believed this tomato variety can provide a vitamin D quantity comparative to 28 grams of tuna or the equivalent of two eggs.
Senior researcher Cathie Martin, who is a professor at the John Innes Center, a renowned plant science research center in Norwich, England, emphasized that they had developed “a plant-based source of vitamin D3 suitable for vegans and vegetarians”.
The Significance of Vitamin D-rich Foods
What makes this breakthrough significant is the fact that very few foods naturally contain vitamin D, and these are generally animal products — including fatty varieties of fish like tuna and salmon, as well as egg yolks.
In many parts of the world, such as the United States, vitamin D is added to certain foods, including milk and many non-dairy alternatives, along with breakfast cereals.
As a result, vitamin D insufficiency, and overt deficiency, are less common in the United States compared to many other regions. One billion people worldwide have insufficient vitamin D levels, according to the researchers. Despite food fortification, about one-quarter of Americans may still be suffering from inadequate vitamin D levels, they added.
The Repercussions of Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D deficiency is considered a global public health problem due to the essential roles vitamin D plays in the body – from supporting bone strength, contributing to normal nerve and muscle function, and aiding immune defenses.
The Revolutionary Technique and Its Pros
For this groundbreaking work, Martin’s team leveraged CRISPR technology, which allows researchers to precisely edit portions of DNA in a gene to alter its function. The targeted enzyme was 7-dehydrocholesterol reductase, which converts provitamin D3 into cholesterol in tomatoes.
For those doubtful of genetically modified foods, Martin emphasized that gene editing processes do not introduce any foreign DNA into the plant. The researchers found no unintended effects on other tomato genes either.
Martin commented, “I don’t have any problem with taking a pill. But it’s so much better to eat a plant-based food.” While tomatoes provide some crucial nutrients, including fiber, vitamin C, and lycopene, this could expand their nutritional impact immensely.
Additional Potential Benefits
Another interesting note is provitamin D3 levels were found to be particularly high in the tomato plant leaves, which are usually discarded. Growers could potentially extract the valuable nutrient from these greens, developing a vegan-friendly source of supplemental vitamin D and a potential monetary incentive, as well.
The promising news is this novel tomato has passed the taste-test too. As per Martin, “They taste like regular tomatoes.”
Further Research and Questions to Answer
Assistant Professor of International Health at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Amanda Palmer, who was not part of the study, labeled this development as “exciting” but saw it as an early proof-of-concept.
Palmer highlighted some key questions, including the stability of provitamin D3 during storage and processing, the degree of absorption by the human body, and if consumption of these tomatoes can actually alter an individual’s vitamin D status.
More Information Expected
As of now, whether consuming tomatoes at a certain quantity to create a “public health impact” remains uncertain according to Palmer. However, continuous research might slowly unlock the potential benefits of this genetic modification.
We could be on the brink of another health revolution in the near future. For more on vitamin D, readers are advised to refer to verified resources such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s factsheet.