Professor Julian Ma with tobacco plant. St. George's, University of London (U.K.)
Professor Julian Ma with tobacco plant.

Experts aim to turn tobacco plant from killer into biofactory

New varieties of tobacco potentially could produce compounds such as antibodies, vaccines and medicines in a sustainable manner.

For centuries, tobacco has been used for smoking, with serious consequences to human health. Now, a consortium of scientists is aiming to support the declining traditional cultivation of smoking tobacco in rural areas by creating new tobacco plants that produce much more valuable products.

The European Union-funded NEWCOTIANA project is coordinated by scientists with the Spanish Research Council' Institute for Plant Molecular & Cellular Biology and includes the participation of 19 industrial and academic partners from eight European countries and Australia. In the U.K., St. George’s, University of London (SGUL), is involved in two separate parts of the project.

First, SGUL professor Julian Ma is coordinating research involving 10 of the research partners that will develop new tobacco plant lines and evaluate their performance in manufacturing pharmaceutical proteins. Second, Dr. Sebastian Fuller is working to engage with the public about the new plant breeding techniques used and the new products that will emerge as a result, SGUL said in an announcement.

Instead of cultivating the leaves to make cigarettes, researchers have found promising ways to turn tobacco leaves into factories for medical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products using a range of non-genetically modified technologies, collectively known as "new plant breeding techniques."

Taking advantage of these cutting-edge breeding techniques, which include CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing, researchers aim to develop new varieties of tobacco and its wild relative, Nicotiana benthamiana, to produce compounds such as antibodies, vaccines and medicines in a sustainable manner, SGUL said.

Ma, the Hotung professor of molecular immunology at SGUL, said, “We will breed new varieties of tobacco that will be safe and efficient biofactories to produce important health products. Tobacco is an important global crop, and it is exciting to be part of a project that considers how to turn it from an enemy to a friend.”

Diego Orzaez, coordinator of the NEWCOTIANA project, added, “Our scientific aims are ambitious, and in addition to solving a number of technical issues, we realize that we also need to take into account regulatory requirements and start a dialogue with interested organizations and the general public.”

NEWCOTIANA, which was launched in February 2018 in Brussels, Belgium, is a 54-month project funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 Research & Innovation program.

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