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Posted on: October 12, 2018 at 3:07 pm
Last updated: November 6, 2018 at 11:46 am

Hey, there’s a new fruit on the block. It looks like a cherry tomato, has a texture somewhere between a tomato and a grape, and people are saying it boasts a tropical flavor profile of pineapple and mango. Because of its thin papery husk, this fruit is part of the same family as tomatoes. So, what exactly is it?

Technically, it goes by the name of Physalis pruinosa. But if you ever saw any being sold at a farmer’s market, you would likely see signs for “ground tomatoes,” “husk cherries,” “winter cherries,” “strawberry tomatoes,” or the more recently popular “ground cherries.” [1]

What Is a Ground Cherry?

Ground cherries are both seasonal and difficult to grow, which is why many people haven’t heard of them before or even know how to cook with the rare crop. [2] The fact that they often fall to the ground – hence the name ground cherry – before ripening makes largescale production pretty much impossible. [1]

“To tame these shortcomings via traditional plan domestication – shrewdly developing its desirable traits over successive generations and seasons – would take decades, centuries, or even longer,” writes Peter Dockrill for Science Alert. [3]

In our speedy, ever-advancing, genetically modified world, some people aren’t willing to wait all those years and let nature take its course. This is why ground cherries are the latest food that researchers have attempted to genetically tweak in hopes of producing plants that can rapidly yield bigger fruit and more of it.

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Ground Cherries: The Obscure Fruit On the Rise

Wild, unruly plants – especially one whose fruit usually hits the ground long before it’s ripe enough – are not really desired by growers, food retailers, or consumers. It’s true… most people will pick fruits that are still hanging from a branch or vine as opposed to ones that been sitting on the ground.

But, what if we could tame one of these obscure undesirable fruits and make them one of the world’s major berry crops? At least that’s what Zachary Lippman, a plant biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, thinks.

“[The ground cherry] is a really unruly plant with great potential,” says Harry Klee, a plant geneticist at the University of Florida Gainesville. [4]

In October 2018, Lippman and his team published a study in Nature Plants about their findings after editing two genes in ground cherries. After finding the genes that give domestic tomatoes their characteristics, researchers used CRISPR, a gene editing tool, to make the genetic tweaks. [5]

“Cutting one gene… with the gene editor [CRISPR]… created a mutation that caused the plants to stop making shoots and leaves and to instead produce more flowers and fruit. The altered plants yielded 50 percent more fruit on each shoot than unaltered ground cherries. Snipping a second gene… caused the fruit to grow 24 percent heavier.” [4]

Potential Dangers of Gene Editing Food

It’s hard to deny how amazing science and technology is and almost no one would have probably thought food gene editing would be possible to this extent. However, it’s even harder to simply accept this very new form of genetic modification.

The industry is moving incredibly fast and more research into the safety of such practices needs to happen. And while gene editing tools such as CRISPR may be able to produce bigger, more flavorful forms of produce, tweaking DNA may have unforeseen health consequences not only on the environment, but on farmers and consumers.

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Currently, even the USDA has chosen not to regulate CRISPR-edited crops. In a statement released on March 28, 2018, US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said: [7]

“Under its biotechnology regulations, USDA does not regulate or have any plans to regulate plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests. This includes a set of new techniques [e.g., genome editing] that are increasingly being used by plant breeders to produce new plant varieties that are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods.

If you do want to avoid gene-edited foods, your best bet is to buy organic because these newer techniques are not allowed under organic practice. In closing, Dr. Janet Cotter of Logos Environmental raises a valid point: [6]

“The real question is whether GMOs are needed in agriculture at all. Advanced conventional breeding is now highly effective at producing the traits in plants and animals that both farmers and consumers desire and entails less risks to the environment and human health.”

Keep Reading: 343 Studies Prove Organic Food Is Not Just A Marketing Gimmick

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[1] Fiegl, A. (2010, September 02). Five Ways to Eat Ground Cherries. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/five-ways-to-eat-ground-cherries-98470003/

[2] The Perennial Ground-Cherry. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/groundcherry.htm

[3] Dockrill, P. (n.d.). Meet The Weird Fruit That Could Soon Become as Common as a Strawberry. Retrieved from https://www.sciencealert.com/meet-weird-fruit-could-soon-become-common-strawberries-future-food-groundcherry-physalis-pruinosa-crispr

[4] Saey, T. H. (2018, October 01). Gene editing can speed up plant domestication. Retrieved from https://www.sciencenews.org/article/gene-editing-plant-domestication

[5] Lemmon, Z. H., Reem, N. T., Dalrymple, J., Soyk, S., Swartwood, K. E., Rodriguez-Leal, D., . . . Lippman, Z. B. (2018, October 01). Rapid improvement of domestication traits in an orphan crop by genome editing. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41477-018-0259-x

[6] Gene editing in agriculture poses new risks to health, environment. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://gmwatch.org/en/news/latest-news/18459-gene-editing-in-agriculture-poses-new-risks-to-health-environment

[7] Secretary Perdue Issues USDA Statement on Plant Breeding Innovation. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2018/03/28/secretary-perdue-issues-usda-statement-plant-breeding-innovation

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