A research team led by scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich has edited the genetic makeup of tomatoes to become a robust source of vitamin D, which regulates nutrients like calcium that are imperative to keeping bones, teeth and muscles healthy.
Although vitamin D is created in our bodies after exposure to sunlight, its major source is food, largely in dairy and meat.
Low vitamin D levels – associated with a plethora of conditions from cancer to cardiovascular disease – affect roughly 1 billion people globally, the researchers said.
Tomato leaves naturally contain one of the building blocks of vitamin D3, called 7-DHC. Vitamin D3 is considered best at raising vitamin D levels in the body.
The scientists used the Crispr tool – which is designed to work like a pair of genetic scissors – to tweak the plant’s genome such that 7-DHC substantially accumulates in the tomato fruit, as well as the leaves.
Most vitamin D3 supplements come from lanolin, which is extracted from sheep’s wool. Since the sheep stays alive, it works for vegetarians, but not vegans.
The scientists are now evaluating whether sunshine, instead of ultraviolet light, can effectively convert 7-DHC to vitamin D3.
New regulations in Britain have allowed the researchers to evaluate this theory – but it could be some time before they are ready to hit supermarket shelves.
To close the current gap in the intake of vitamin D from dietary sources, two medium-sized gene-edited tomatoes should be enough, said the study’s lead author, Jie Li, adding that it is hard to tell a gene-edited tomato apart from a wild tomato.
“They taste like tomatoes,” added Cathie Martin, another study author.