This month marks the start of shipments of tomatoes that control high blood pressure, the first genetically modified food to be approved by the Japanese government for distribution and sale.

Gene editing technology makes it possible to modify the genome (total genetic material of an organism), the imprint of life, at will. Research and development is underway on a wide variety of genetically modified foods that improve the quality and productivity of edible plants and animals, and the dawn of a new food era is near.

Consumer understanding is key to the widespread acceptance of these foods. This article explores the possibilities and challenges of the coming new food era.

Tomatoes that can lower blood pressure

Japan’s first genetically modified food is a tomato that contains four to five times more GABA, a substance known to be effective in controlling high blood pressure and relieving stress, than a conventional tomato.

It was jointly developed by venture capital firm Sanatech Seed (Minato-ku, Tokyo) and the University of Tsukuba using gene-editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9 to disrupt genes that suppress GABA production .

In December last year, a commission of inquiry from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare confirmed that the tomato is not a “genetically modified food”, nor a food in which new genes have been been introduced, and that it does not produce any harmful substance for the organism. human body.

When the company put out a call for monitors offering free seedlings to grow in home gardens, it received around 5,000 applications by the late February deadline and began shipping the plants on May 11.

Although there are no labeling requirements, the seedlings are clearly labeled as using gene-editing technology to see how consumers will react. From autumn 2021, the tomatoes will be grown by contract farmers. Sanatech Seed plans to start selling tomato puree on its website by the end of the year, followed by fruit and tomato plants from next spring.

The company has started taking orders for the tomato puree and has already received hundreds of pre-orders.

Sanatech President Shinpei Takeshita said, “We hope many people will experience our great product and help improve their quality of life.

Genetically modified tomato plants
Genetically modified potatoes

A wide range of research in Japan and around the world

The world’s first GM food to hit the market is an increased oleic acid soybean oil that is being sold in the United States. The tomato that reduces blood pressure will be the second. However, basic research on other foods that may prove useful to society is actively underway, both in Japan and abroad.

The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) has removed the part of the chicken genome that produces the protein linked to egg allergies. Research is ongoing on the production of hypoallergenic eggs.

Osaka University is working to modify potato genes to stop the buildup of naturally occurring potato toxins, such as solanine, to help prevent food poisoning.

Increasing yield is also an important issue. The National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO) is currently using gene editing to develop a variety of rice that produces a greater number and size of grains on the stalks, potentially altering the staple food of the Japanese people.

Additionally, Kinki University and Kyoto University have created red sea bream with larger edible parts. By removing the gene that inhibits muscle development, the edible part of the fish was made 1.25 times that of a normal fish, even though the growth period and the amount of food were the same. They aim to market as soon as possible.

The Fisheries Research and Education Agency is working to develop docile and easy-to-farm tunas. Tunas, which swim at high speed, are sensitive to light and are often startled, causing them to crash into other fish or nets. The agency therefore strives to weaken their sensitivity.

The University of Missouri is also working on pigs that are less susceptible to contagious viruses and require less labor to raise.

Scientists working on genetically modified foods inspect high GABA tomato plants.

Challenge Gaining public understanding remains a challenge

DNA, which contains genetic information encoded in the sequence of four types of nucleotide bases, can be edited using gene editing technology as freely as if cut with scissors. Unlike genetic modification, which introduces new genes from another organism, genetic editing of foods is limited to changes that can occur in the natural environment, such as cutting DNA to render genes inoperable or causing a mutation.

Moreover, while genetic modification largely depends on chance as to where the introduced gene will be placed in the DNA, gene editing can alter the targeted gene with near precision. Initially, the precision was insufficient. But after the invention of CRISPR-Cas9 by Jennifer Doudna from the United States and Emmanuelle Charpentier from France in 2012, the accuracy improved dramatically. They received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year for their work.

Nevertheless, consumer understanding of genetically modified foods remains limited. One researcher lamented: “Although the mutations are the same as those that could occur in the natural world, many people wonder if it can upset the ecosystem or be bad for the body.”

Sanatech Seed President Takeshita said, “GM foods are still a new field, so it is difficult to understand consumers. We will persist in explaining that it is safe and contributes greatly to health.

RELATED: Genome-edited crop feed, fish ‘at breaking point in Japanese agriculture’

(Read the Sankei Shimbun report in Japanese on this link.)

Author: Juichiro Ito