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Tobacco Plants Studied as Drug Bio-Factories

Cara Mortimer and Peter Waterhouse

Cara Mortimer, left, and Peter Waterhouse (Queensland University of Technology)

6 December 2017. A university in Australia is joining a European research project to create new types of tobacco plants for producing pharmaceuticals. A team at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane will take part in the Newcotiana project, an initiative of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program, receiving the equivalent of $US 8 million in funding.

The tobacco plant is best known for products to smoke or chew, having little to do with health. But tobacco plants can also be exploited for generating therapeutic proteins, using the plants’ basic biological processes. An example is ZMapp, a drug derived from tobacco plants that was pressed into service as one of the few treatments for the Ebola virus, when outbreaks occurred in Africa in 2014.

The QUT team will study a native variety of tobacco in Australia, the Nicotiana benthamiana or pitjuri plant, it’s original name among Australia’s indigenous population, to help develop a set of advanced plant breeding tools. The university’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities already cataloged many of the plant’s properties, which contributed to research worldwide on metabolic engineering, plant-microbe interactions, RNA interference, vaccine and drug production (including ZMapp), and functional genomics.

A biological tool set for N. benthamiana is expected to produce new varieties that can more efficiently generate proteins for drug treatments and vaccines using the plants as bio-factories. Cara Mortimer, an environmental scientist at QUT, is expected to apply the work of fellow QUT researcher Peter Waterhouse, who led the sequencing of the N. benthamiana genome.

Waterhouse’s work already sequenced about 85 percent of the plant’s genome, containing some 60,000 genes, about twice the number of ordinary plants. “Collaboration in the Newcotiana project will allow us to have 100% of the plant’s genome sequenced,” says Waterhouse in a university statement, adding, “If you have the whole genome sequenced, you know what you are dealing with, and you can achieve greater precision in the applications with that information.”

The goal of the biological tool set, notes Mortimer, is to create high-value, non-smoking tobacco varieties that act as factories producing drug molecules and proteins. “Traditional tobacco is in decline around the world,” says Mortimer, “and this presents social problems in many rural areas where communities and farmers’ livelihoods have been built around the crops.”

She adds that “This project looks to provide tobacco plants which are efficient bio-factories and which can be farmed, providing an alternative to farming of traditional tobacco.”

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