Culinary connoisseurs may already be aware of the groundcherry, the small orange fruit native to Central and South America, thanks to its recent appearances on various high-end television cooking shows. Nevertheless, like many ‘orphan crops’ (those currently grown only at a small-scale and/or a subsistence level), production of groundcherries on the scale required to make them a mainstream crop and an alternative food source has been hampered by the fruit’s undesirable qualities (including early dropping of fruit) and lack of domestication, a process which can take decades or even centuries if done by selective breeding.
The revolutionary gene-editing technology called CRISPR could now make it possible to fast-track the domestication of orphan crops. By using CRISPR, scientists can select the traits that make crops such as tomatoes successful (for example flower number or fruit size) and add them to the genetic code of other crops. One group of scientists used groundcherries to demonstrate this, creating larger fruit and a less unwieldy plant in the process.
‘It’s not that the groundcherry will be a crop that changes the world, but it is a representation of what’s possible using the technology,’ says Zachary Lippman, professor of genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. ‘What was either impossible, or would have taken tens of years, is now achievable within just a few years.’
Lippman explains that, as a member of the Solanaceae plant family – also home to the tomato, the potato and the pepper – the groundcherry serves as a template for how this technology could be expanded, not just to tap the potential of other undomesticated Solanaceae family members, such as the goji berry, but other orphan crops too. It could even be applied to wild plants with agricultural potential. ‘On paper the possibilities are endless,’ says Lippman. ‘Now we have the tools to turn the dials, a little bit this way or a little bit that way, that’s really what breeding is all about. Let’s open our eyes beyond just the major crops, there’s all these other orphan crops that are out there. The main thing now is to demonstrate how far we can take the groundcherry.’
This was published in the December 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!