A Bright Future for One of the Most Hated Plants
Of the estimated 400,000 plant species, tobacco may be the most maligned. But for that unenviable reputation, the blame lies squarely with the hucksters who packaged it with poison and dishonestly sold it to the public. By itself, tobacco -- scientifically dubbed Nicotiana -- is rather pretty. Many species are grown solely for ornamental purposes. Nicotine, the addictive substance for which the plant is named and which suffuses throughout the leaves, stem, roots, and flowers, is actually intended to ward off insects.
Tobacco isn't the only plant to contain nicotine, but it does have more than most and is easy to cultivate, which is enough to explain why roughly 6.7 million tons of tobacco are produced throughout the world every year, most of which will go into cigarettes.
But recently, as tobacco cultivation for cigarettes has started to slow, thanks in part to a worldwide anti-smoking effort, there's a rising trend in using the plant to do scientific good.
The most publicized example came last year, when scientists utilized genetically modified tobacco to produce ZMapp, perhaps the most promising experimental treatment for Ebola. ZMapp was used to treat seven individuals infected with the deadly virus, two of whom died. A company called Kentucky BioProcessing manufactures ZMapp by immersing young tobacco plants in a liquid containing a specific gene. The plants take up that gene, which tells them to make disease-specific antibodies. CBS News' Bob Simon referred to the plants as "Xerox machines for antibodies."
Years ago, tobacco plants were at the forefront of genetic modification. In 1982, scientists inserted and expressed bacterial genes in a tobacco plant, producing the first genetically modified plant. One-tenth of all crops are now genetically modified.
Tobacco is now among "the most often used model plants for research in the field of physiology, biochemistry, molecular biology and genetic engineering." The international research database PubMed shows 5,771 papers on transgenic tobacco.
Julian Ma, chair of the Hotung Molecular Immunology Unit at St George's, University of London, explained to Wired.co.uk why tobacco is such a terrific tool.
"It is very easy to work with from a biotechnology point of view. Perhaps more importantly, when thinking about future production, it is not a food crop (so we do not have to be concerned about our genes or antibodies flowing into the food chain), but it is a major world crop, for which a considerable amount of horticultural expertise has already been developed."
Ma is growing human antibodies inside tobacco plants. With his "plantibodies," he's taking aim at diseases like rabies and HIV. Scientists have also engineered tobacco plants which can remove environmental pollutants like lead and mercury from the soil, a process called bioremediation. Other groups want to develop tobacco as a biofuel, which seems to make more sense than producing heavily subsidized biofuels from corn.
Last year, in an innovative feat of engineering, researchers tweaked tobacco plants with two genes from cyanobacteria to more efficiently photosynthesize. Photosynthesis is the fundamental biochemical process by which plants convert energy from sunlight into chemical energy in the form of sugar. If crop plants could be made to photosynthesize more efficiently, yields could be drastically improved.
Though tobacco has indirectly killed millions, the stage is set for the plant to be reborn as a scientific tool for good.