Violet, you're turning violet, Violet!

Purple TomatoBiology at the beginning of the third millennium, the 21st century, the year 2006, is much like Physics was in the 1950s. We've recently uncovered the tools and built up the requisite knowledge to make huge strides in our ability to understand what happens with life, as well as our ability to control it. With that knowledge comes fear, legislation, potential, likely a severe catastrophe or two, some eventual wisdom (hopefully), and ... purple tomatoes?

You may recall reading in the news that blueberries are a super-food, containing secret chemicals that help prevent cancer. These chemicals are called Anthocyanins, and aren't so much a secret as they are hard to remember. Still, anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants, and antioxidants are useful in preventing oxidation, which prevents molecular degradation, which prevents mutations in DNA, which prevents cancer.

Tomatoes, on the other hand, are an extremely popular foodstuff, second most popular worldwide (next to potatoes, a cousin to the tomato), and so wouldn't it make sense to piggy-back on that popularity to bring even more cancer-fighting abilities to one of the most popular fruits in the world?

There are two schools of thought on that: yes, and no. Okay, there are many, many schools of thought. Some people think that anything science can do to help fight cancer is great. Other people think that tampering with the genetic code is likely to cause us trouble in the future due to the law of unintended consequences. Other people think tampering with the genetic code is playing God, and therefore wrong.

Alton Brown thinks that modifying foods to have healthy properties of existing foods is the wrong way of going about things. (Scroll to the bit about the Omega Pigs.) The gist, if I may extrapolate from his one rant, is that blueberries are already blue because they contain the appropriate anthocyanins, so why not just eat blueberries?

Of course, if he feels differently about tomatoes vs pigs (and I have no idea if he does or not), it may be because it's a lot easier to grow tomatoes than blueberries (hence one of the reasons they're so popular). Generally, with genetically engineered crops, the idea is to give beneficial traits to crops that are easy to grow in areas that don't easily have access to whatever the genetic engineering is allowing. For example, adding vitamins to wheat or rice, so if the farmers in some area of the world can only grow wheat or rice, they receive far more nutrients than they otherwise would have. Alternately, if you don't have access to organic, human-safe pesticide, build it into the crop. Saves from having to spray (especially if you don't have easy access to an aerosolization technology), but with the exact same benefits.

Do the researchers at the Oregon State University have the emerging world agriculture in mind, or commercial possibilities, or is it just to see if they can do it at all? Probably some of each, really. Interestingly, the seeds are apparently available for commercial growth as well as home growers. I'm very curious to know what a blue tomato tastes like, and if it's sweet and delicious, that's at least as important as whether it is heavy in antioxidants. After all, I can always eat blueberries, but an even tastier tomato is always worth finding.