- The groundcherry — a small tart fruit similar to the tomato — has traditionally been considered unsuitable for large-scale agriculture. But scientists in New York have used CRISPR gene editing as a shortcut to see whether the wild groundcherry can be cultivated for mass production and potentially compete with strawberries, blueberries and raspberries.
- Plant biologist Zachary Lippman and his colleagues at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory used genomics and gene editing to take the marble-size groundcherry and make the fruits larger and the plants more compact. Their research was published Oct. 1 in the journal Nature Plants.
- These results show that researchers can take a wild plant and domesticate it with gene editing. "I firmly believe that with the right approach, the groundcherry could become a major berry crop," Lippman told Food Ingredients First.
Gene editing could change the market for fruit crops in the future. Groundcherries have gone from wild to having the potential for large-scale production in only a matter of years. Now, the tomato-like fruit may be poised to become the next popular fruit.
The groundcherry is viewed as a good prospect for commercial development because it's tolerant of drought and has an interesting taste, which Lippman told Food Ingredients First is tropical, a bit sour and has hints of vanilla. The flavor has also been described as a cross between a tomato and a pineapple.
The new berry crop could add diversity to U.S. food production and expand the domestic fruit market for consumers. But it could also have hurdles along the way. The groundcherry is known as an "orphan crop," meaning it is only grown on a regional or subsistence basis. Due to low productivity, poor shelf life or other limitations, orphan crops aren't typically adopted into mainstream agriculture, Food Ingredients First noted.
The fact that scientists were able to use gene editing to make changes in the groundcherry plant within two years bodes well for similar plants. "This is pretty good proof that with gene editing you can think about bringing other wild plants or orphan crops into agricultural production. The more arrows we have in our quiver to address agricultural needs in the future, the better off we're going to be," Lippman said in a release.
CRISPR allows researchers to quickly and accurately pinpoint areas inside the genome of crops such as corn, soybeans, strawberries or apples. The tool can then manipulate DNA to make the crops sweeter or more flavorful, increase their tolerance to drought and floods, or extend their shelf life. Idaho's J.R. Simplot Co. and its corporate and academic partners are currently using CRISPR to limit waste in potatoes, avocados and strawberries due to poor storage or shelf life.
But it's possible public concern may grow about the CRISPR gene-editing process. Despite the potential advantages of the technology, many U.S. consumers remain leery of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and prefer their food and beverage ingredients to be GMO-free. They may have similar concerns about changing the genetic coding of food. Many people prefer their food to be natural and oppose any changes to it, while others could be squeamish about having it altered.
If the groundcherry does make it into the American marketplace in a major way, adventurous consumers are likely to give it a chance since the appetite for an exotic flavor experience is extending more often to fresh produce. Social media is also playing a role, with recipe-sharing making consumers more aware of these items — especially among millennials. It's easy to look up ways to serve exotic produce online, and people are more often taking advantage of the opportunity.
While the groundcherry isn't likely to dethrone strawberries, blueberries or raspberries as one of the most popular smaller fruits right now, it could eventually have its own moment in the spotlight if producers are able to grow enough of them.