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Cold Spring Harbor scientists use CRISPR to tweak groundcherry's genes

Zachary Lippman, a professor of genetics at the lab and a Howard Hughes Institute medical investigator, envisions a day when the wild and now-obscure fruit is displayed abundantly in produce aisles.

With the help of CRISPR genome editing, researchers

With the help of CRISPR genome editing, researchers have found a way to take the groundcherry (Physalis pruinosa) from almost wild to almost domesticated in a matter of years. Photo Credit: HHMI / Sebastian Soyk

A wild and obscure fruit with an “intoxicatingly tropical” taste has been tweaked with a breakthrough gene-editing technique, producing a fruit that one day could give strawberries some stiff competition at local grocery stores, scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory predicted Tuesday.

Welcome the groundcherry – a small berry protected in a parchmentlike envelope and engulfed in a jungle of leaves. A single bite evokes hints of pineapple – and tomato. 

The groundcherry is what’s known as wild and unknown, just as quinoa once was. But quinoa has made its way into the American lexicon and onto countless menus. Scientists think a similar path awaits the tiny groundcherry.

Zachary Lippman, a professor of genetics at the lab and a Howard Hughes Institute medical investigator, envisions a day when the groundcherry is displayed abundantly in produce aisles. He calls it a superfood, naturally chock full of vitamins and minerals.

“The groundcherry could become a major berry crop,” said Lippman, who emphasized that he holds a firm belief in its value as a potential and nutritious food source.  

Collaborating with Joyce Van Eck of the Boyce Thompson Institute, an independent plant research center in Ithaca, Lippman and a team of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory scientists used the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR to make three tiny tweaks to the plant. The groundcherry is a native of Central America and distant cousin to the tomato.

CRISPR allows scientists to easily swap in or swap out specific letters of the genetic code, thus changing precise traits of the plant itself. Think of them as tiny tweaks that improve the groundcherry’s bounty.

One tweak blunted the production of a hormone that regulates flowering, hence making the plant more compact to produce more clusters of fruit rather than a single groundcherry at a time.

A CRISPR change to the genes involving yet another flowering hormone led to more fruit production by up to 50 percent along a given stem length compared with the native plant. The third change boosted the number of seed sections within each fruit, which in turn, increased its overall size.

Editing via CRISPR should not be confused with GMOs, genetically modified organisms, Lippman said, which can involve swapping in genes from other organisms.

“With gene editing you can think about bringing other wild plants or orphan crops into agricultural production,” he said.

“We are still working with everything that nature has provided,” said Lippman, who has long specialized in studying tomato plants.

“With traditional breeding, whatever traits nature has kicked out of the DNA, that’s the hand you have been played. With gene editing, now you are playing poker with aces up your sleeve.”    

Lippman and Van Eck contend in a new scientific paper published this week in the journal Nature Plants that it is feasible to take a plant that is essentially wild and effectively harness it for domestication. The team described their work in the report as a shortcut around traditional breeding techniques – thanks to CRISPR.

CRISPR has taken the biological research community by storm in recent years and has proved a useful tool in a variety of disparate studies, ranging from cancer research to developing ways to tame antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Scientists in China earlier this year used CRISPR to edit a gene mutation in viable human embryos. The technology permits an effective and reliable method to make precise changes to the genomes of organisms.

Lippman and Van Eck see the technology as a method to provide next-generation foods.

“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.

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