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Whoa, scientists want to use CRISPR to make one spicy tomato!

Whoa, scientists want to use CRISPR to make one spicy tomato!
[Photos: Pixabay/Pexels; Elle Hughes/Unsplash]

In the future, making salsa could involve simply forking a spicy tomato with a tortilla chip.

Some presumably spaghetti-al’arrabiata-loving scientists have realized that CRISPR can be used to make spicy tomatoes by using the gene-editing technology to turn on nascent spicy genes within the tomatoes themselves.

As you may recall from high school biology–or from the bottle of Tabasco that you dumped in your Bloody Mary–what gives peppers their spiciness are molecules called capsaicinoids, which can be found in arthritis creams, pepper spray, and, of course, jalapeño peppers. Peppers are the only plants that naturally produce those spicy molecules, but peppers apparently take a lot of work to cultivate.

That’s why a group of researchers in Brazil and Ireland suggest using CRISPR to turn tomatoes into capsaicinoid-producing machines, according to a paper published Monday in the journal Trends in Plant Science. “Capsaicinoids are very valuable compounds; they are used in [the] weapons industry for pepper spray, they are also used for anesthetics [and] there is some research showing that they promote weight loss,” Agustin Zsögön of the Federal University of Viçosa in Brazil, co-author of an article, told The Guardian.

However, because peppers are hard to grow, he argues that it’s worth engineering spicy tomatoes–and not just for the salsa, but as a cost-effective way to create a potentially important molecular compound (the shrimp fra diavolo opportunities don’t hurt, either).

Tomatoes and peppers come from a common long-ago ancestor, so the capsaicinoids are buried in their DNA somewhere, but are not active. That’s where science comes in. Using a gene-editing technology, like the much-touted Crispr-Cas9, scientists can switch those dormant spicy genes back on in tomatoes. According to The Guardian, Zsögön and his team are already working on the feat, and say they hope to have some news by the end of the year. Even if you’re opposed to eating GMOs normally, having a spicy tomato plant growing in your backyard could be pretty appealing at least for re-creating this commercial:

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