Thursday, November 3, 2016

Bioengineered Tobacco Plants Produce an Antimalarial Drug

One of the main weapons against malaria, a drug called artemisinin, comes from a plant called sweet wormwood. Unfortunately sweet wormwood grows slowly and the yield of artemisinin per plant is low. In addition, extraction of the drug is difficult and expensive. As a result, the supply of purified artemisinin is currently insufficient to meet worldwide demand.

That's where genetic engineering may come to the rescue. Researchers have managed to insert 12 key genes in the artemisinin biosynthetic pathway into tobacco plants. The modified tobacco plants grow quickly and produce much more artemisinin per gram of dried leaf than sweet wormwood. Indeed, they produce so much artemisinin that just feeding the dried leaves directly to malaria-infected mice works as well against malaria as administering purified artemisinin. The researchers suggest that by creating genetically modified plants that produce high concentrations of artemisinin, extraction and purification of the drug may not be necessary at all.

No one is suggesting that it would be a good idea to feed malaria-infected kids a steady diet of dried tobacco leaves. But as a proof of concept, these new findings demonstrate that it might be possible to genetically engineer another plant to produce artemisinin. Perhaps some day the drug will be produced in an edible plant, such as beets or lettuce.

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