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Genetically-Modified Tobacco Plant Produces Cocaine in Leaves, Reveals Study

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Last Updated: November 29, 2022, 13:05 IST

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Tobacco Plant Representative Image (Photo Credits: File Image)

Tobacco Plant Representative Image (Photo Credits: File Image)

In a new study, scientists have found how to genetically modify a tobacco plant to produce cocaine in its leaves. It was revealed in a paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Though cocaine is an illegal drug, it also has been used in medical practices for years, when it comes to giving anesthesia or narrowing blood vessels to stop bleeding. Now, in a new study, scientists have found how to genetically modify a tobacco plant to produce cocaine in its leaves. For those unaware, naturally, cocaine is obtained from the leaves of the Erythroxylum coca plant, and researchers seemingly made an attempt to recreate the process in the leaves of the tobacco plant namely Nicotiana benthamiana. Their discovery was revealed in a paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

During the study, a team of scientists from the Kunming Institute of Botany, located in China, made an attempt to alter the genetics of the plant Nicotiana benthamiana, to produce two enzymes. These enzymes result in the formation of cocaine when the leaves of the plants are dried. The name of the two enzymes are - EnCYP81AN15 and EnMT4, as per the study. They are deemed essential for the conversion reaction that leads to the formation of methylecgonone.

When the researchers used Nicotiana benthamiana, during the study, a plant whose leaves contain a substance called ornithine, was able to convert its similar chemical properties to produce the enzymes. In the end, the result of the experiment and the genetic modification conducted on the tobacco plant showed that it can produce methylecgonone in its leaves. The study shows that the modified plant was able to produce approximately 400 nanograms of cocaine per milligram of the dried leaves.

The production is considerably less than the coca plant, however, the study is deemed as a new hope for the pharmaceutical companies who only have limited ways to produce the drug. The co-author of the study, scientist Sheng-Xiong Huang, explained, “At present, the available production of cocaine in tobacco is not enough to meet the demand on a mass scale.” But the team hopes their research becomes fruitful for the modification of other organisms that could produce it on a larger scale, such as yeast and bacteria.

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first published:November 29, 2022, 13:05 IST
last updated:November 29, 2022, 13:05 IST
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