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Innovators 2014 part three – Cathie Martin and Eugenio Butelli’s purple tomatoes

Innovators 2014 part three – Cathie Martin and Eugenio Butelli’s purple tomatoes - 13 May 2014. JIC video

BBSRC Innovator of the Year 2014 winners reveal the secrets behind their innovations in a series of three articles.

In this, the third, Most Promising winners Professor Cathie Martin and Dr Eugenio Butelli of the John Innes Centre provide the lowdown on the world of purple tomatoes. In the first, Overall Innovator winner Professor Luke Alphey of The Pirbright Institute recalls the ups and downs of his journey to combat dengue fever using genetically modified mosquitoes. In the second, Commercial winner Dr Curtis Dobson from the University of Manchester explains how work on infections and Alzheimer's disease led to a new class of anti-infective compounds.

How does it feel to win the Most Promising Innovator award?

Cathie Martin (CM): It is wonderful to have our parent organisation classify the work as 'promising' and 'innovative'. The feeling is a bit like when one's parents say they are proud of you!

Eugenio Butelli (EB): When we received the award, I felt like when I won my first prize as a 9-year-old schoolboy. The award brought back memories and emotions of that day, and a feeling of nostalgia for the '70s.

Cathie Martin and Eugenio Butelli of the John Innes Centre with a bowl of their purple tomatoes. Image: Tim Gander
Cathie Martin and Eugenio Butelli of the John Innes Centre with a bowl of their purple tomatoes. Image: Tim Gander

Please describe your winning innovation in brief?

CM: We have engineered 'model foods' which can be used to identify dietary bioactives with health properties in comparison to matched-matrix, food controls. For instance, we have produced tomatoes with high levels of anthocyanins, flavonols, resveratrol and genistin. These model foods can test and compare and the impact and activity of specific phytonutrients on a range of chronic diseases. In addition they are foods that can be taken directly from preclinical trials with animal models, through human intervention studies to the market.

EB: Our genetically modified tomato lines represent a unique system to study the link between diet and health.

What are its main advantages, benefits or future impacts?

CM: Healthier foods and the possibility of designing diets enriched in health-promoting bioactives that provide therapies complementary to more traditional pharmaceutical treatments for chronic diseases.

EB: Our innovation has raised great awareness and interest on specific phytochemicals and, in general, on the importance of plant-based diets for the prevention of chronic diseases. In the future, consumers will make better food choices and the food industry will adapt to changing diets using strategies that can win public support.

What more needs to be done to bring it from potential to commercial impact?

CM: We need to get regulatory approval for commercialisation and conduct trials with the bioactive-enriched foods in human volunteers.

A harvest of purple tomatoes has been processed for research trials. Image: JIC video
A harvest of purple tomatoes has been processed for research trials.
Image: JIC video

What has been BBSRC's role in supporting your path?

CM: BBSRC has paid my salary and, over the past four years, Eugenio's salary as part of the core strategic grant to the John Innes Centre and now as part of the Institute Strategic Program on Plant Metabolism. It has also provided matching funds to support multidisciplinary projects funded by the European Union in Frameworks 5, 6 and 7 that have underpinned our research since 2002.

EB: BBSRC support is essential for our day-to-day research activities and, therefore, for the development of our innovation.

You are a joint winner, but what have you individually brought to the project?

CM: I write the grant proposals and try to find funds to support the research that we do. I try to squeeze in a little bench work still, mostly plant genetics and Southern blots [a technique for detecting DNA sequences].

EB: I am an 'old skool' molecular biologist and I have been dealing directly with all the technical and scientific aspects since the start of the project. I built the DNA construct, I performed the tomato transformation myself… and then one day I saw tomato fruit turning purple, which gave me the right motivation to characterize the GM tomato and transfer its trait to other varieties by [conventional] crossing.

What inspired you to found the company, Norfolk Plant Sciences (NPS)?

CM: We were inspired to found NPS to develop an infrastructure that could take a health-benefiting but genetically modified (GM) food from the lab to the supermarket shelf. We have been helped enormously by the co-founders of NPS and our financiers who have kept faith with us, even when no one else did.

Most Promising category winners collect their award from BBSRC Chief Executive Jackie Hunter. Image: Tim Gander
Most Promising category winners collect their award from BBSRC Chief Executive Jackie Hunter. Image: Tim Gander

What will NPS do in terms of clinical trials with the purple tomato juice?

CM: The purple tomato juice is a food not a drug so we will not be doing 'clinical trials'. We hope to run studies with human volunteers where we can establish the beneficial effects (if any) of consumption of purple tomato juice on markers for risk of cardio-vascular disease. Then we need to determine whether our observations in animals hold up in humans.

Your technology involves genetic modification; would do you say to critics of GM technology in general?

CM: GM technology is neutral in its effects. Consequently no-one regulates new drugs on the basis of whether or not they have been produced by genetic modification, but rather on their risks and benefits in treating target diseases. Similarly, each GM food product should be assessed for the trait that has been engineered, and the benefits of that trait should be assessed as well as any potential risks. Regulatory approval is important but the high cost of gaining regulatory approval means that the public in the UK still do not have access to many GM products that could benefit them directly or their environment, particularly by making agriculture more sustainable.

A salad with conventional and GM tomatoes. Image: JIC
A salad with conventional and GM tomatoes.
Image: JIC

EB: We need to debunk the 'natural food' myth. There is nothing really 'natural' in what we eat. Our food is the result of extensive human intervention. Every day we eat foods derived from plants that have been bombarded with radiations with the deliberate objective to induce mutations (wheat, for example).

Genetic engineering has been used for decades in microorganisms for the production of essential medicines. Genetic modification of plants is not risk-free, but the risks for human health and for the environment are lower than those associated with plants treated with radiations and chemical mutagens or with GM bacteria and viruses.

Do you think consumers will one day be happy to drink GM purple tomato juice?

CM: All we want is to offer consumers a choice, those that remain unhappy about foods developed using genetic modification do not need to buy them, let alone consume them. We know from our email correspondence that a great number of ordinary people want to try our tomatoes.

EB: There is already a niche market formed by a small minority of health-conscious consumers and people attracted by the novelty of the product. More people will be happy to drink purple tomato juice only when GM technology will be perceived as an acceptable strategy for crop improvement.