What do we know about the saffron? The most interesting recent discovery concerning this bulb-tuber plant so precious (and expensive) in the kitchen concerns the Italian discovery of the gene linked to the molecules of crocin and crocetin, those which deriving in turn from a carotenoid molecule give the typical red color to saffron.
The gene is called CCD2 (Carotenoid Cleavage Dioxygenase 2) and is also linked to the molecules which, in addition to color, determine the very particular aroma and flavor of saffron. The discovery consists in having understood that the biotechnological use of the CCD2 protein allows to synthesize the crocin even outside the stigmas of saffron, and seeing that the latter is a powerful dye and antioxidant - it has been used in natural medicine since ancient times - this is an important discovery.
The identification of the CCD2 gene opens up two scenarios. The first, futuristic, is that one can be produced saffron synthetic, biotechnology, laboratory. The second, more immediate, consists instead in the possibility of producing crocin (which cannot be synthesized chemically) through biotechnology without it being necessary saffron, replaceable by corn or a test tube, which obviously affects the cost and availability of the molecule.
We said that the discovery of the secrets of saffron is a bit Italian because at the head of the international team that isolated the CCD2 protein is an ENEA scientist, Giovanni Giuliano, supported by researchers from Saudi Arabia (King Abdullah University for Science and Technology), Germany (University of Friborg) and Spain (University of Castilla-La Mancha).
Synthetic saffron? If anything in the future and according to the researchers this is not the goal because it is natural saffron remains unsurpassed. The CCD2 discovery goes beyond the gastronomic uses of the plant and rather marks an important step on the road to knowledge of the mechanisms of production of natural molecules.
To produce 1 kg of saffron it is necessary to collect about 150 thousand flowers in the fields and it takes about 500 hours of work. From 20 flowers, 60 pistils are obtained which, once dried and processed, make a sachet of finished product. Today the world's largest producers of saffron they are Persia, India, Spain and Greece. In Italy it is grown in small quantities in Abruzzo and Sardinia.