`Pharming' health benefits for consumers FRUIT AND VEGETABLE breeders are no longer content with developing new varieties that resist plant diseases or produce higher yields. Today's breeder is working alongside medical researchers to improve the human health benefits of produce.

Science has long documented that fruits and vegetables are loaded with vitamins vital to good health and, in some cases, essential for life. But scientists are now discovering additional natural chemicals, called phytonutrients, that not only prevent diseases such as diabetes and some cancers, but also have been shown to inhibit tumors, reduce heart disease and act against kidney disease.

Others may boost our immune system to help fight off communicable diseases.

Dr. Kevin Crosby, a melon and pepper breeder at the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Wes-laco, said the collaboration between medical scientists and breeders is a relatively new field that holds tremendous promise in developing new varieties of fruits and vegetables with additional and higher levels of phytonutrients.

"The potential is great because we're still in the process of identifying new phytonutrients, and especially because we know that not all of them have even been characterized," Crosby said. "We're still in the early stages of studies but the interest in the scientific community is tremendous."

He and others, including Dr. Bhimu Patil at the Texas A&M-Kingsville Citrus Center in Weslaco, and Dr. Leonard Pike at Texas A&M's Vegetable Improvement Center in College Station, are teaming up with medical and cancer researchers at various institutions including the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Baylor College of Dentistry.

"We now know that peppers, for example, have very high levels of phytonutrients," said Crosby, "but we've studied only the species of pepper that is popular in this country, which is the annuum, or Mexican species. This includes bell peppers, jalapenos, wax peppers and serranos. There are many, many other species of peppers out there, say in South America, that we know almost nothing about."

To learn more about "foreign" peppers and what beneficial nutrients they might have, Crosby is collaborating with Brazilian pepper breeders who, conversely, are interested in the Mexican peppers unfamiliar to their area. "There could be, for example, a unique pepper variety found only in one small village in Bolivia that is loaded with a particular cancer-fighting phytonutrient," said Crosby.

"And if we look closely at the small population in that one village, we might find that because they consume this pepper, certain cancers are non-existent. Imagine how human health could benefit from knowing that."

The ultimate goal, Crosby said, is to study the genetics of beneficial nutrients in fruits and vegetables throughout the world and incorporate them via various breeding methods into the fruits and vegetables we consume regularly.

"In the very near future we'll be breeding new varieties of fruits and vegetables that are even healthier for us than they already are," Crosby said. "And we may not need to consume them in high quantities in order to get the healthful benefits."