You may not have heard of the groundcherry (Physalis pruinosa), but scientists are eager to get people to try the exotic fruit, which has a flavor that has been described as tropical, and may or may not also taste like vanilla or tomatoes. Groundcherries usually grow in Central and South America and are high in nutrients like vitamins, protein, and fiber. The fruit is about the size of a marble and is a member of the nightshade family. Researchers are hoping to bring it to US markets within a few years now that it's been genetically modified, and will be easier to grow than the type found in the wild.
"We targeted genes that we knew from our experience could make the plant more compact and manageable," said Joyce Van Eck, a researcher at the Boyce Thompson Institute, an independent affiliate of Cornell University. "Farmers have been saying, 'if you can just get them to behave, we'd be growing acres of these.'" Van Eck talks about GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) and whether they are safe to eat in the video.
Taking inspiration from previous changes that have been made to tomatoes, the researchers used the CRISPR gene editing system to modify the plant genes. Tomatoes are easier to grow because of a single mutation introduced into their genome, so the same mutation was made in the groundcherry plants.
"When you mutate the gene, it basically shrinks the plant like an accordion so you can make it much more compact," explained the co-leader of the work, Zachary Lippman, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
Lippman noted that only a few years ago, quinoa was considered an orphan crop - important locally but not used on a global scale. Considering how things have changed for that grain, we may see ground cherries everywhere soon enough.
As time passes, humans are becoming increasingly reliant on a small number of foods. Experts have warned that as people move toward a ‘globalized diet,’ we threaten food security. A natural event impacting more than one crop, like major drought or disease, could pose a serious problem if we don’t introduce new foods to the market. To feed a growing population, we should look to other sources of sustenance.
Van Eck is hopeful that the tools they applied in this work can be applied to other plants. "We rely on just a handful of major food crops," she said, and it’s time to bring more diversity into our diets. If you think about agriculture going into the future, we need to have more tools in our toolbox," Lippman added. "And the more crops we have at our disposal, the more power we're going to have to address needs."
In the video above from Cell, Lippman discusses genetic modifications that have improved the tomato.