Tired of the same old produce options at your local supermarket? There might soon be a new fruit on the block that could become as common as tomatoes or strawberries, thanks to CRISPR genome editing that can speed up the domestication of wild, once-obscure plants.
Meet the groundcherry (Physalis pruinosa), sometimes called a "husk cherry," a Central and South American plant in the nightshade family (along with the tomato, potato, and eggplant) characterized by its outer husk and tropical, vanilla-flavored fruit. Chances are, you haven't tasted one yourself ... not yet anyway.
That could soon change, however, after groundbreaking new gene editing experiments that are transforming this unmanageable crop into one that is more agriculturally viable, and tastier.
"I firmly believe that with the right approach, the groundcherry could become a major berry crop," said Zachary Lippman, a plant scientist and lead researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in a press release.
The key to their approach is a technology known as CRISPR, a breakthrough gene editing method that has the power to speed up the domestication process. What once took generations, now could only take a few years.
Wild groundcherry already has an appealing taste, but it does tend to be a bit sour. It's also not an ideal crop, growing fruits individually rather than in clusters. CRISPR-edited groundcherries have already been corrected for these traits; the fruits are denser, more plump, and have more seeded sections. They also stay on the vine longer, and ripen more consistently.
"This is pretty good proof that with gene editing you can think about bringing other wild plants or orphan crops into agricultural production," said Lippman. "The more arrows we have in our quiver to address agricultural needs in the future, the better off we're going to be."
As for how the fruit might be used to liven up your dishes, the tomato might be its closest analogue. Imagine groundcherry pasta sauce, or even some groundcherry caprese. Martha Stewart apparently has a recipe that suggests drizzling them with olive oil. No doubt home chefs of the future will come up with endless creative ways to use it.
And the groundcherry is just the beginning. Lippman and colleagues are already looking at other wild crops that could be candidates for similar modifications.
"This is about demonstrating what’s now possible," he said.