There’s a fruit out there called a groundcherry, and scientists are trying to use CRISPR genetic modification techniques to turn it into a staple fruit sold at supermarkets.
Scientists chose the fruit to try and turn them into examples for why CRISPR genome editing can help plants. It’s a fruit that isn’t very rich in flavor or large in size, kind of like what fruit was like before humans domesticated the plants and helped them become strong and fruitful in the natural way. The findings were published in the journal Nature Plants.
According to to Science Alert, “scientists have used the groundcherry as an experimental test case to illustrate just how quickly CRISPR genome editing can speed up the domestication of wild, unruly plants.”
“Things tend to move a bit faster with CRISPR. In a new study, researchers have demonstrated that the same domestication process can take place in only a few years, thanks to the incredible control afforded by precise genetic editing.”
The groundcherry, Physalis pruinosa, is a fairly obscure crop. Also known as a husk cherry, they are native to Central and South America. One article notes that it would be a “long, hard road to acceptance within mainstream agriculture without the helping hand of scientists.”
Unfortunately these people don’t seem open to the not as interesting possibility that maybe shortcuts aren’t meant to be taken with nature.
The crop in its current form certainly isn’t very full of ripe, fruity flesh or easy to grow, but those characteristics are exactly what human beings naturally bred out of other fruits, like watermelons or bananas or any other fruit, through simply picking the best new seed to grow and harvest the next year, “domestication” of plants.
This ground cherry is difficult to grow, and the fruits quite sporadically drop from the vine to the ground before they are ripe, making large-scale agriculture not so viable.
It would take decades or even centuries to develop the desirable traits of a ground cherry and turn it something as delicious as perhaps a regular cherry, but many would argue that’s the only way to do it. This article is of course being written from a perspective skeptical of CRISPR and genetic engineering, but if you want to take it from the people promoting this, lead researcher and plant scientist of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Zachary Lippman said:
“I firmly believe that with the right approach, the groundcherry could become a major berry crop. I think we’re now at a place where the technology allows us to reach.”
Working with researchers from the Boyce Thompson Institute and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Lippman sequenced a little bit of the groundcherry’s genome and used CRISPR to conduct genetic manipulation on it.
He tried to influence a hormone involved in the regulation of flowering, which may encourage the plant to become more compact and produce fruit in clusters instead of with individual fruits.
They claim to have made the fruit denser, with a third modification making the fruit larger.
Next, the team is trying to modify the color and flavor of the fruit. The groundcherry is said to taste sour and a little bit like a tropical fruit with vanilla overtones. They want to use what they know about the tomato genome to make the fruit different.