Genetically Altered Tomato Could Combat Cancer (Jul 1998)

European scientists have bred a vitamin-rich tomato they hope can eventually help prevent heart disease and cancer.

The tomato has increased levels of carotenoids, nutrients important to ealth. It has about four times the normal levels of beta-carotene, which the body uses to make vitamin A, and twice the levels of lycopene, the compound that helps make tomatoes red. "The reason for that is there are a number of reports that lycopene reduces the risks of some cancers," said Peter Bramley, a professor of biochemistry at the Royal Holloway Hospital at Egham, UK. "Therefore, the dea is if we can increase the amount of lycopene in the diet through tomatoes his can reduce the incidence of these cancers," Bramley, who coordinated the European Union-funded study, said.

Bramley's group used Agrobacterium to deliver a new gene into the plant. What we have done is to take the gene that encodes the enzyme to produce lycopene and we have introduced that into the tomato so it only works in the ripening fruit," he said. Other teams in Spain and Germany are attempting the same research with peppers.

Bramley has eaten his transgenic tomatoes. "They don't taste any different," he said. "They are quite normal. Bramley noted that the genes inserted into the tomatoes and peppers were genes for substances already eaten by people, so he safety implications were different. He said work was being done in other labs to create rice rich in beta-carotene and lycopene for growing in countries where naturally vitamin-rich vegetables are scarce. Beta-carotene and ycopene are antioxidants, counteracting the effects of free radicals, which can amage cells, leading to cancer, heart disease and other harmful effects.

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