Blink and you'll miss it. And you'll be missing out on something that has the potential to be the next superfruit, the Physalis pruinosa. Though it has great promise, its problem is that its current properties make it a difficult large-scale cultivation plant. However, researchers are expecting that they could modify it enough through the gene editing tool CRISPR to overcome this obstacle.
You may already be familiar with its cousin, the Physalis alkekengi (commonly known as physalis), nowadays sitting atop luxurious pastry creations. The earth cherry, also known as Cape gooseberry (Physalis pruinosa) belongs to neither the cherry nor the gooseberry family, but is closer taxonomically to that of the tomato or the potato. Its rich properties lie in the fruit itself as it is filled with vitamins C and B, along with beta-carotene, phylosterols and antioxydants that contain anti-inflammatory qualities.
'We believe this plant has the potential to become a specialty that can be grown in large parts of the United States,' says Professor Joyce Van Eck, co-author of the study that appeared in the Nature journal. Native to Central America, the earth cherry is currently under-utilized in the United States because of the difficulty to develop it in large-scale plantations. However, this could change thanks to the famous CRISPR tool.
CRISPR, a tool for domestication
Orphan crops that aren't well known internationally, like the ground cherries, are difficult to domesticate quickly because they retain too many of their wild traits, meaning their growth, yield and other factors more tricky to predict and control. Instead of going through a meticulous (meaning slow and costly) selection process to pick out desirable traits over many plant generations, the researchers have chosen to quicken the process through genetics.
Thanks to the CRISPR gene editing tool, Joyce Van Eck, Zachary Lippman and their team have managed to come up with more manageable plants, with 50% more fruits and carrying more seeds. 'It's exciting to be able to use what we've learned with tomato [in previous experiments] and apply it to a distant cousin species,' gushes Van Eck.
Future territories to explore
This plant does come with its set of questions and concerns however: even before becoming sufficiently ripe for humans, the plant drops its fruits on the ground. This phenomenon can damage the fruit and create sanitary risks, leading to intensive and expensive work in order for it to be harvested.
'The Physalis is the perfect candidate when it comes to finding a way to prevent this from happening. Gene editing is probably the only method we can avert it from happening to the earth cherry,' reveals the specialist. We are therefore left to admire the unique cousin alkekengi atop its three-layer cake, before the Physalis breaks into the intensive farming industry and, inevitably, dives into our plates.