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Monday, 27 October 2008 22:46

Blueberry-colored tomatoes fight cancer, may lengthen life

A European study added healthy antioxidants to tomatoes and found they turned the vegetable purple in color. More importantly, the genetically modified tomatoes were fed to cancer-prone mice, which helped them to live longer. It might help people reduce the risk of cancer and live longer in the future.

The European researchers based their study on past research that showed anthocyanins can slow the growth of cancer cells, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and age-related degenerative diseases.

Anthocyanins, which occur in all tissue parts of plants such as leaves, stems, fruits, and flowers, are found in high levels in fruits such as blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, and chokeberries.

The researchers published their results in the October 26, 2008 issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology. Their paper is entitled “Enrichment of tomato fruit with health-promoting anthocyanins by expression of select transcription factors.”

The authors, from the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, are Eugenio Butelli, Lucilla Titta, Marco Giorgio, Hans-Peter Mock, Andrea Matros, Silke Peterek, Elio G. W. M. Schijlen, Robert D. Hall, Arnaud G. Bovy, Jie Luo, and Cathie Martin

The abstract to their Nature Bioechnology paper states, “Dietary consumption of anthocyanins, a class of pigments produced by higher plants, has been associated with protection against a broad range of human diseases. However, anthocyanin levels in the most commonly eaten fruits and vegetables may be inadequate to confer optimal benefits.”

The genetically modified tomatoes had two types of anthocyanins added to them. The two genes are called Delila and Rosea1, which are from the snapdragon, a type of flower.

Anthocyanins are a specific type of antioxidant that belong to the flavonoid class. These two antioxidants gave the tomatoes their new purple color.

How did the scientists perform the experiment, and what was their result? Please read on.

The researchers first added the two genes "Delila" and "Rosea1" to the tomatoes.

They then fed a powder obtained from the purple tomatoes to two groups of mice: one group that did not have the Trp53 (sometimes abbreviated p53) gene (which helps to fight cancer) and a second group that possessed the p53 gene.

Their abstract stated, “When we expressed two transcription factors from snapdragon in tomato, the fruit of the plants accumulated anthocyanins at levels substantially higher than previously reported for efforts to engineer anthocyanin accumulation in tomato and at concentrations comparable to the anthocyanin levels found in blackberries and blueberries.”

The researchers found that the p53 cancer-fighting group lived longer. In fact, they live, on average, 182 days compared to the 142 days, on average, for the mouse group did not have the p53 gene.

The researchers stated in their abstract, “Expression of the two transgenes enhanced the hydrophilic antioxidant capacity of tomato fruit threefold and resulted in fruit with intense purple coloration in both peel and flesh. In a pilot test, cancer-susceptible Trp53-/- mice fed a diet supplemented with the high-anthocyanin tomatoes showed a significant extension of life span.”

One of the authors of the research study is Eugenio Butelli, from the John Innes Centre in Colney Norwich, the United Kingdom. He stated, “The two genes we have isolated are responsible for flower pigmentation and, when introduced in other plants, turned out to be the perfect combination to produce anthocyanins, the same phytochemical found in blueberries.” [Washington Post: “Purple Tomato Extended Lives of Cancer-Prone Mice”]

Dr. Butelli and the research team performed tests on their modified tomatoes and found that the “purple tomato has a very high antioxidant activity, almost tripled in comparison to the natural fruit.” [Washington Post]

Page three discusses future benefits from this research.

The authors reported in the study that their finding are preliminary and much more research is necessary in order to verify their results and to learn more about the cancer-fighting anthocyanins.

The tomatoe is one type of food that already contains high levels of antioxidant compounds such as flavonoids and lycopene.

These healthy benefits could be accentuated even more with the addition of these anthocyanins.

If further studies are found to be positive with respect to being able to add anthocyanins to foods, then such genetically modified foods could be used to reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases in people.

Cathie Martin, another one of the authors of the study, stated, "This is one of the first examples of metabolic engineering that offers the potential to promote health through diet by reducing the impact of chronic disease.” [BBC News: “Purple tomato 'may boost health'”]

Dr. Martin, from the John Innes Centre, added, “And certainly the first example of a GMO [genetically modified organism] with a trait that really offers a potential benefit for all consumers."

With further studies in this area, humans may someday have foods that are all rich in healthy and cancer-fighting substances. Who knows, maybe even french fries could someday be healthy to eat?


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