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Watermelon may one day have Viagra-like qualities

This is not an Aggie joke.

Someday watermelons might have Viagra-like properties, researchers at Texas A&M University predicted Monday.

That said, much study and much breeding remain.

One problem is that the beneficial ingredient in good-eating varieties — citrulline — is now mainly found in the rind.

Researchers such as A&M's Steve King are trying to find melon with citrulline in the fruit's flesh.

"We will have to screen thousands and thousands of watermelon until we find it," King said in a call from College Station. "And when we do, it might not be good eating. So through crossbreeding, we will have to move it into melons that are."

Slices or juice would then have to be fed to human volunteers for rounds of tests. And frankly, millions in yet-to-be-unearthed funding would be needed.

In the body, citrulline is converted with the help of certain enzymes into an amino acid called arginine. Arginine increases nitric oxides, which scientists believe relax blood vessels, improving flow, much as do Viagra and similar impotence drugs.

So far, no large-scale studies have been conducted to determine whether watermelon boosts levels of citrulline and whether there's a clear medical effect on any particular organ, said Bhimanagoda "Bhimu" Patil , director of A&M's Fruit and Vegetable Improvement Center, the facility that bred the maroon carrot, rich in beta-carotene.

"If this was a drug, pharmaceutical companies would spend a lot for studies," Patil said. "But since it's watermelon they won't - unless it's to test for interaction with their drugs."

So far, only a small U.S. Department of Agriculture study has been conducted, Patil said.

A year ago, researchers at the USDA facility in Beltsville., Md., reported blood levels of arginine to be 11 percent higher in volunteers who for three weeks consumed 24 ounces a day of watermelon juice, and 18 percent higher among those consuming 48 ounces, compared to participants who consumed no melon juice.

The USDA cited preliminary results of other studies suggesting that arginine might help treat high blood pressure, unhealthy blood-sugar levels and vascular disorders associated with sickle-cell disease.

Public interest in fruits and vegetables with added health benefits could mean a ready market for citrullune-rich watermelons, especially if an ingredient mimics an erectile-dysfunction drug without side effects, Patil noted.

But the research costs money — and it must come from the right source.

"If watermelon growers put up the money, people won't believe the research," he said. "I think we need funding from the federal government."

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