The first time I visited Hawaii and discovered the sweet fresh of papayas, I thought I was in heaven. I had never touched them before in the grocery store since they were kind of foreign looking. You know how it goes: if you don’t know what to do with a food, you skip it.
After eating untold quantities of the fleshy orange innards of papaya on the islands, I make it a point to seek them out now.
A devastating ringspot virus hit Hawaii in the 1940s. Papaya growing moved between islands, going from Oahu to Puna, and then the virus was found in back- yards nearby. Aphids spread the virus, which nearly destroyed papaya plants. The result was nearly $17 million lost in papaya business for the islands.
Finding a solution to this became the focus of everyone involved with papayas, to save both family businesses and a major contributor to the Hawaiian economy. A team of researchers tested hundreds of plants to see which were resistant to the virus and chose a cucumber. They identified the gene that was resistant to the ringspot virus from the cucumber and isolated it so they could use it in the papaya.
The solution came from the virus itself—meaning it’s like a vaccination we take to avoid chickenpox. Scientists isolated the gene from the cucumber from the virus’s protein coat and inserted it into papaya cells. One of the papaya cells added the new gene to its own DNA, which was incorporated into the papaya. It allows the cells’ defenses to recognize the virus’s gene product as foreign and destroy the virus by chopping it into such small pieces that no infection occurs.
Then came the regulatory agencies, charged with making sure the new virus- resistant papaya was safe for humans and the environment. Animal Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) considered the impact on agricultural environments, and the EPA looked at the pesticidal impact of the viral coat protein produced by the transgenic papaya. Finally, the FDA considered the food safety aspect of the transgenic papaya. And the once-endangered papaya plant continued to exist.
Genes are in every living being—including you; they’re not the bad guy. Remember the pain of picking seeds out of grapes? Thank a gene for your seedless grapes. Enjoy watching your kids bury their face in watermelon with no worry of choking on seeds? Thank a gene for your seedless watermelon.
Another great example of genes at work is the Arctic apple, which was developed in British Columbia, Canada. This apple doesn’t brown as fast because they have slowed down the gene that causes browning of the apple. I don’t know about you, but no matter how many times I try to talk myself into eating those leftover brown apple slices—they still kind of gross me out.
Genes can do amazing things, from protecting a plant for long-term survival, to offering more nutrition in a piece of fruit, making it more convenient for those of us who enjoy fruit.
Read more at Food Truths from Farm to Table to arm yourself with 25 truths you urgently need to know about food so you can shop without guilt, confusion, or judgment. A new book, Food Bullying, releases November 5 to upend the way you think about eating choices.