Citrus growers could be commercially producing medication-friendly grapefruit within a few years thanks to the work of scientists at the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center.
Fred Gmitter, a professor of citrus breeding and genetics at the Lake Alfred, Fla., center, published data in the December issue of the journal “Xenobiotica” about a new grapefruit variety. It is scheduled for release in January through the New Variety and Development Management Corp.
A hybrid of a grapefruit and a pummelo, the new variety is known as UF 914, Gmitter said. Initial studies show it is very low in furanocoumarins, which are the compounds in grapefruit that interact with digestive enzymes and cause problems for people taking certain types of medications.
“In science we sometimes benefit from happy accidents,” Gmitter said Dec. 19. “This is one of those times.”
About 15 years ago Gmitter was working with traditional plant breeding techniques to create a pummelo with red flesh. A few years later, Paul Cancalon of the Florida Department of Citrus in Lake Alfred was studying furanocoumarin levels in grapefruit varieties and he found that UF 914 had extremely low levels.
Through additional research Gmitter and Cancalon found that a single gene in the “parent pummelo” was the key to the new grapefruit’s low furanocoumarin level. Gmitter said he wasn’t actually looking for a low-furanocoumarin grapefruit, even though people frequently ask him about the possibility.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ll be talking to people and they tell me that they love grapefruit and ate it all their lives, until they had to start taking certain medications,” Gmitter said.
“We have tested this juice on human cell cultures and found very little effect on the enzymes. We can’t say it’s safe, yet, but we are ready for human clinical trials.”
Gmitter said those trials will take outside funding that has not yet materialized. However, he is hopeful that the Florida citrus community will step up. He stressed that the variety is not genetically modified, but merely the product of cross breeding.
The new variety has already proved popular with consumers in focus study research in Atlanta. Gmitter said the focus groups included people who said they didn’t like grapefruit and others who said they did. Both groups said they liked the taste of the new UF 914 variety.
The new variety is slightly bigger and has a little thicker rind than traditional grapefruit, Gmitter said. It is also easier to peel. It will be released through a licensing program to nurseries in early 2013. Gmitter said it could be in commercial production and on grocery store shelves in as little as five years.