Products like Eat Just's JUST Egg and companies like Nestle have developed plant-based alternatives meant to replace the need for conventional chicken eggs by providing similar nutrition. But what about vegans and plant-based eaters who try to avoid processed foods? British scientists from the John Innes Centre began experimenting with the CRISPR gene-editing technology to close the nutrition gap for consumers who might lose out on Vitamin D3 when giving up animal products.

Cutting out eggs or fish from your diet could cut out a significant amount of Vitamin D3 – an essential nutrient typically received by sunlight or animal product. Now, researchers have edited the genetic code of tomatoes to maximize the Vitamin D3 levels in the fruit. These tomatoes will contain the equivalent level of the vitamin as two medium eggs or two ounces of tuna.

The British researchers released their findings in the scientific journal Nature Plants, which revealed that gene-editing technology could successfully close nutrition gaps between different diets.

The researcher chose the tomato to optimize with the CRISPR-Car9 technology because tomato plants hold the precursor provitamins necessary in their leaves. The tomato plants – producing provitamin D3 or 7-dehydrocholesterol (7-DHC) – made the tomato a viable candidate for the experiment. The CRISPR technology will optimize the tomatoes' ability to produce Vitamin D3, allowing plant-based dieters to easily consume Vitamin D3 without animal products.

“We’ve shown that you can biofortify tomatoes with provitamin D3 using gene editing, which means tomatoes could be developed as a plant-based, sustainable source of vitamin D3,” lead author and Professor Cathie Martin said in a statement.

Optimizing the Tomato’s Health Benefits

In some ways, Vitamin D3 is one of the most abundant vitamins, but communities located in areas with low sunlight can find themselves lacking this essential nutrient during substantial portions of the year. The British scientists – motivated by the small daytime hours of the Winter – aim to provide an easy solution to this nutrient deficit with regularly eaten produce.

"Forty percent of Europeans have vitamin D insufficiency and so do one billion people worldwide,” Martin continued. We are not only addressing a huge health problem but are helping producers, because tomato leaves which currently go to waste, could be used to make supplements from the gene-edited lines."

The gene-edited tomatoes will allow people to satisfy the global Vitamin D3 recommendations (approximately 400 international units (IU) to 800 IU, depending on age). The researchers also noted that allowing the plant to receive more sun exposure would result in higher levels of Vitamin D3. The researcher intends to provide consumers with the proper amount of this essential nutrient when they otherwise lose access to sunlight and intend to maintain a plant-based diet.

The researchers also ensured that the gene-edited tomato would face no barriers in its ability to produce the essential vitamin. With the CRISPR technology, the scientists turned off an enzyme  (Sl7-DR2) that was discovered to prevent the accumulation of the provitamin D3 in the plant’s leaves.

The optimized tomato contains high levels of Vitamin D3 in the leaves as well, recorded at approximately 600 micrograms per gram of dry weight. Typically, tomato plant leaves are seen as waste, but with the newly optimized genetic code, the leaves could be used as ingredients to bolster Vitamin D3 for other products.

Providing Essential Nutrients to Plant-Baed Eaters

Most companies fortify foods with Vitamin D3 with animal products including lanolin – an ingredient found in sheep’s wool. This research provides a clear way to optimize crops so that plant-based consumers can receive the proper levels of certain vitamins. The research team also noted that it plans to experiment with other major crops including peppers, potatoes, and eggplant, which all have similar biochemical make-up to tomatoes.

The findings provide a solution to Vitamin D3 deficiencies, which previous research has linked to higher risks of dementia, cancer, and even more severe COVID-19 symptoms. The enhanced tomatoes mark an achievement of CRISPR and plant-based technology, aiming to ensure that all consumers have access to healthy, immune-boosting foods regardless of location.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has helped to highlight the issue of vitamin D insufficiency and its impact on our immune function and general health,” study author Dr. Jie Li said in a statement. “The provitamin D-enriched tomatoes we have produced offer a much-needed plant-based source of the sunshine vitamin. That is great news for people adopting a plant-rich, vegetarian, or vegan diet, and for the growing number of people worldwide suffering from the problem of vitamin D insufficiency.”

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