October 4, 2022
Engineering tomatoes to produce vitamin D

Li, J., Scarano, A., Gonzalez, N.M. et al. Biofortified tomatoes provide a new route to vitamin D sufficiency. Nat. Plants (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-022-01154-6

Reading the pages of the World Sustainable Development Goals 2 (SDG2) — Eradicating Hunger — is depressing to say the least. According to the estimates made in 2020, nearly 690 million people, who make up close to 8.9% of the world’s population, are hungry. This number has increased by 60 million in the preceding five years. The index which was initially decreasing has started to rise since 2015. This does not portend well for the SDG2 which has as its target zero hunger by 2030, and the guess is, if this trend continues, that the world will have 840 million people affected by hunger by 2030.

There are various ramifications to hunger, and an important part of it is micronutrient malnutrition. This is a term used for diseases caused by deficiency of vitamins and minerals in the diet. This is particularly a problem in developing countries and the number of those suffering from this so-called invisible hunger is huge. Some methods of combating this are to provide micronutrient supplements in the form of tablets or capsules and to fortify food products such as flour or salt by enhancing micronutrients in them. There is also the route of genetically modifying plants to produce biofortified leaves and fruit which can be consumed to alleviate micronutrient hunger.

In this line, a paper in Nature Plants by Jie Li et al tries to address vitamin D deficiency by genetically modifying tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) plants so that the fruit contains a significant amount of provitamin D 3 which is a precursor from which humans can make vitamin D. Provitamin D 3 has the chemical name 7-dehydrocholesterol, or 7-DHC for short. Humans can synthesise Vitamin D from 7-DHC when they are exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) light. Vitamin D is needed for a process known as calcium homeostasis which is the maintenance of constant concentration of calcium ions in the body. This is needed for, among other things, bone development and strength, and its deficiency is a cause of conditions such as rickets and osteoporosis.

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