Tomatoes could be genetically modified to produce spicy chilli varieties, new research has suggested.
Scientists believe it is possible to tweak the genes of the tomato to make it produce capsaicinoids, which give chilli peppers their spicy taste.
In an article in the journal Trends in Plant Science, researchers from the Federal University of Viçosa in Brazil said the latest gene-editing techniques showed promise.
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“Engineering the capsaicinoid genetic pathway to the tomato would make it easier and cheaper to produce this compound, which has very interesting applications,” said the senior author of the paper, Agustin Zsögön.
The aim of the modification would not be to make spicy tomatoes available in supermarkets, but to mass produce capsaicinoids more easily.
The fiery substance has many useful nutritional and antibiotic properties and is found in everything from painkillers to pepper spray.
Chilli peppers and tomatoes evolved from a common ancestor about 19 million years ago.
Researchers who have sequenced the genome of the tomato discovered it still had the genes needed to produce capsaicinoids, but lacks the ability to switch them on.
“In theory you could use these genes to produce capsaicinoids in the tomato,” Dr Zsögön said.
“Since we don’t have solid data about the expression patterns of the capsaicinoid pathway in the tomato fruit, we have to try alternative approaches.
“One is to activate candidate genes one at a time and see what happens [and] which compounds are produced. We are trying this and a few other things.”
Chilli peppers developed their spicy flavour as a defence mechanism to stop them being eaten by some animals.
The capsaicinoids trick the brain into thinking the tongue is burning by activating specific nerve cells.
It is thought chilli peppers include them to deter small mammals from eating them, in favour of birds – which are better for dispersing seeds far and wide – as they do not experience the spiciness as pain.
Although the researchers have not embarked on the process to create spicy tomatoes to offer them to the public for eating, they note that should their endeavours be successful a side effect could be new varieties of tomatoes on sale in the future.