The Peruvian coca plant

Cocaine is perhaps best known as a dangerous drug. But it is also legally used as a local anesthetic for operations. Scientists in China have genetically engineered a tobacco plant to produce cocaine in its leaves.

“It’s actually a big challenge to solve this unresolved scientific question,” said Sheng-Xiong Huang, a plant chemist at the Kunming Institute of Botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Researchers have been trying to determine how the coca plant, native to western South America, biosynthesizes cocaine for at least a century.

Recently, Huang and other researchers discovered the biosynthetic pathway of the drug hyoscyamine, another tropane alkaloid with psychoactive effects. For study published last year in Journal of the American Chemical SocietyHuang and his co-authors discovered a pair of enzymes responsible for creating cocaine.

Turning tobacco into cocaine

To learn more about the process, the team had to reverse engineer cocaine by reworking the genes into another plant, in this case tobacco.

“Scientific curiosity and interest motivated us to do this in the first place,” says Huang.

But it’s not like you’ll start seeing extra warnings on your cigarette packs anytime soon.

Read more: A Brief History of Cocaine Wine and Coke

For a start, Nicotiana benthamiana is a relative of tobacco native to Australia – not the kind normally grown on an industrial scale to make cigarettes.

The researchers also did not try to find an alternative way to commercially produce cocaine. The genes in this tobacco plant are easy to manipulate – a Canadian company genetically modified them N. benthamiana quickly produce particles that they used to develop a vaccine against COVID-19.

In this case, Huang and his colleagues identified several candidate genes responsible for making cocaine. After they got them in N. benthamianathey created a small amount of cocaine.

Limited quantity of cocaine produced

Still, it’s not as if the drug cartels are going to mass-produce cocaine using tobacco plants.

“This reconstruction of cocaine in tobacco means nothing because the production of cocaine [via this method] is quite low,” says Huang. And even if those cracked tobacco plants had a significant amount of coke, “That ability doesn’t carry over into the next generation of tobacco,” Huang adds.

Read more: E-cigarettes with cocaine can help people struggling with addiction

For medical or research purposes, it would make more sense to produce it again in the future using a strain of yeast, Huang says.

But there is another upside to this research: learning more about the drug and its production could lead researchers to create a less addictive variety of cocaine that still retains its medicinally useful anesthetic properties.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *