A new genetically modified purple tomato may hit US supermarket shelves.

(CNN) It ​​tastes like a tomato, smells like a tomato and even looks (mostly) like a tomato. There’s only one problem: it’s purple.

The USDA has approved a genetically modified purple tomato, paving the way for the unique fruit to be sold in American stores next year.

“From a plant pest risk perspective, this plant can be safely grown and used in breeding,” the agency said. in a press release on September 7.

The approval brings the purple tomato one step closer to widespread distribution. In addition to its unique color, the purple tomato also has health benefits and a longer shelf life than garden-variety red tomatoes, scientists say.

The tomato was developed by a team of scientists, including British biochemist Cathie Martinwho is a teacher at University of East Anglia and project leader at John Innes Center in Norwich, England.

Martin worked on the production of pigments in flowers for more than 20 years, he told CNN. “He wanted to start projects where we could look and see if there were any health benefits to this particular group of pigments,” he said.

The pigments that attracted Martin’s interest are anthocyanins, which give blueberries, blackberries, and eggplants their rich blue-purple hues. With funding from a German consortium, he decided to engineer tomatoes rich in anthocyanins, hoping to “increase the antioxidant capacity” of the fruits.

By comparing regular tomatoes to purple genetically modified tomatoes, you could easily identify if anthocyanins were linked to any specific health benefits.

To engineer the purple tomatoes, the scientists used snapdragon transcription factors to make the tomatoes produce more anthocyanin, creating a vibrant purple color.

Martin and his colleagues published the first results of their research in 2008 in an article in Nature Biotechnology.

The results were “impressive,” he said. Cancer-prone mice that ate purple tomatoes lived about 30% longer than those that ate regular tomatoes, according to the study.

Martin said there are “many explanations” for why anthocyanin-rich tomatoes may have health benefits. There are “probably multiple mechanisms involved,” he said. “It’s not like a drug, where there’s only one target. It’s about having antioxidant capacity. It can also influence the composition of the microbiome, so it’s better able to deal with the digestion of other nutrients.”

And in 2013, Martin and colleagues published a study who found that purple tomatoes had twice the shelf life of their red cousins.

Martin set up a spin-off company, Norfolk Plant Sciences, to bring the purple tomatoes to market. Nathan Pumplin, CEO of the Norfolk US trading business, told CNN that the purple tomato “strikes a chord with people in a very basic way.”

The distinctive purple color means “it doesn’t take any imagination to see what’s different,” Pumplin said. “It really allows people to make a choice.”

FDA approval and commercialization are the next steps

In the past, forays into genetically modified foods have often focused on engineering crops that are more sustainable to grow, he added. But for consumers, the benefits of eating genetically modified foods are confusing.

“It’s very abstract, hard to understand,” Pumplin said. “But a purple tomato, you either choose or you choose not to consume.” The difference between the GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) product and the non-modified tomato is marked, and the potential health benefits for consumers are also clear.

Pumplin says consumers are “warming up” to GM foods around the world.

“We look at the issues our society is facing around sustainability, climate change, diet-related health and nutrition, and what’s clear from the response to our ad is that it’s a really important issue for a lot of people.” , said. “I am encouraged that many people are beginning to reconsider biotechnology in light of the significant challenges.”

At the same time, “GMOs are not a silver bullet,” he said. “It’s a tool in our toolbox as plant scientists, as scientists, as agronomists, to improve the food production system.”

The next steps for the purple tomato are FDA approval and marketing, Pumplin said. “We need to get great, delicious purple tomatoes. We need to work with growers to produce and distribute them.”

Norfolk will begin launching limited test markets in 2023 to identify which consumers are most interested in purple tomatoes.

As for the taste? The purple tomato is indistinguishable from the standard red tomato, Pumplin said.

“It tastes like a big tomato,” he said.

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