A CRISPR approach to better crops

By Vanessa Greenlee

December 13, 2018

The lantern-shaped groundcherry, with its distinctive paper-thin husk, tomato-like texture and flavor akin to kiwi, seems to deserve a place in international produce markets. But Physalis pruinosa lacks key productivity traits, so its appeal remains limited.

The fruit’s lowly status may soon change, however, now that researchers in Joyce Van Eck’s laboratory at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) have embarked on a journey to make groundcherries more suitable for farmers and gardeners alike.

Van Eck’s group is relying upon both laboratory research and the observations of growers to identify what can and should be improved about the fruit.

In the lab, they’re employing the gene-editing technique CRISPR to understand how individual genes work, particularly those that might improve a plant’s growth characteristics, fruit quality and nutritional content. Though much of Van Eck’s research has focused on potato and tomato, the potential for rapid improvements in Physalis caught her interest because of the opportunity to apply lessons learned from other members of the Solanaceae plant family.

Physalis fruits have a good vitamin C content and are rich in antioxidants, yet are difficult to grow in large agricultural production,” she said. “Gene editing might be the only way to fix this groundcherry.” CRISPR will play an important role because the existing types (germplasm) of groundcherry do not have the characteristics needed for improvement through traditional plant breeding approaches.

Potentially fixable traits that currently limit the commercial appeal of groundcherry include a weedy growth habit that requires structural support and a tendency to drop fruit before it’s fully ripened.

Increased commercial attention on the fruit also may be coming. Bloomberg reports interest from Nestle on the groundcherry’s close relative, goldenberry, as the next “superfood,” following the likes of quinoa and acai berries.

“Dr. Van Eck’s research program puts BTI at the forefront of this new exciting technology,” said Paul Debbie, director of research at the Boyce Thompson Institute. “They are not only using this technology to improve new crops but to learn about mechanisms that plants have evolved over the millennia. This can have profound impacts on agriculture as we move into a challenging future.”

Outreach to farmers and backyard gardeners has been an important component of the project, with over 35 growers  (this blog author included) given unimproved lines of groundcherries to provide feedback on what needed to be improved.

They offered reports throughout the growing season on the plant’s growth habits, pests and — in the case of farmers — channels for distributing fruit to consumers. One grower even reported use of his farm’s groundcherries as an ingredient in a craft brewing company’s sour ale. 

“This project has connected BTI science and scientists with local growers/farmers in ways that help us communicate the importance of our research in new ways,” Debbie noted.

If the BTI research team is successful in editing Physalis to prevent fruit drop, Van Eck intends to honor the new berry with one of the names proposed by community members. “Lantern Berry,” “Baby Cherry” and “Rainbow Berry” (“because it tastes like a rainbow,” the nominator opined) are in the running so far.