By: April Carson
By using genetic modification, researchers were able to get a plant to produce cocaine. The plant is related to tobacco and modified leaves are what churn out the cocaine. The groundbreaking discovery could result in a method to manufacture chemically-identical substances for therapeutic use.
The research team used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to modify a type of tobacco plant. In the modified plants, specific genes were activated or deactivated to create an environment for cocaine production.
The cocaine we know today is a natural tropane alkaloid that comes from the leaves of the Erythroxylum coca plant. While often associated with negative connotations, people have used cocaine and its derivatives for centuries. In fact, indigenous tribes in South America were chewing on coca leaves for at least 8000 years to experience its stimulant and hunger-suppressing effects.
The new study, which was conducted by researchers from the University of York in the UK, has uncovered a method to replicate the same cocaine-producing process with a tobacco plant. Using genetic engineering, they modified leaves to produce tropinone - the chemical precursor for cocaine.
Cocaine has been used as an effective local anesthesia for eye surgery since the 19th century, solving the dilemma of ocular surgery without anesthetics. More recently, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of cocaine as a topical anesthesia of mucous membranes. It is also used for the treatment of pain associated with dental procedures.
The study was able to show that it is possible to produce cocaine from a tobacco plant, but it remains to be seen if this method can be scaled up and commercialized. If successful, this could potentially lead to greater access to the drug at lower costs.
Nevertheless, even after a century of research, scientists have not been able to figure out how the coca plant produces cocaine. The compound has a complicated and unusual chemical structure that can create anesthetic activity; this makes it hard to copy its biosynthesis.
The research team believes the new method could provide a more viable, cost-effective and sustainable approach to producing cocaine. The plant used for the study was a variety of Nicotiana tabacum, commonly known as tobacco.
Altering The Genes
Until now, scientists were only aware that a chemical called MPOA was converted into cocaine.
Sheng-Xiong Huang and his colleagues at the Kunming Institute of Botany in China discovered that by introducing two enzymes known as EnMT4 and EnCYP81AN15, they can better understand the process of converting a chemical precursor into cocaine.
The team was able to introduce the two enzymes into tobacco leaves, thus allowing them to produce cocaine.
To test this theory, researchers genetically modified the tobacco plant's closest relative, Nicotiana benthamiana, to produce cocaine. The modified plant was able to produce around 400 nanograms of cocaine per milligram of dry leaf in experiments, which is approximately 25% less than the amount found in a coca plant.
"Currently, the available production of cocaine in tobacco is not sufficient to meet large-scale demand," explained Sheng-Xiong Huang, a co-author of the study. "But the findings in this study are essential for further investigation into how to improve the production of cocaine and other alkaloids in tobacco plants."
Cocaine is as notorious as it is chemically similar to other anesthetics and stimulants. If we can figure out how it's made, we can develop new drugs that don't come with the addiction baggage.
The team hopes that their research will result in the ability to create other organisms, on a larger scale, which are capable of producing it. These include bacteria and yeast.
The researchers' breakthrough is unlikely to have an effect on the illegal cocaine market for many reasons. For instance, the study is only a proof of concept.
Replicating the process requires in-depth knowledge of genetic technology as well as access to expensive lab equipment and hi-tech machinery.
Producing cocaine from coca leaves is significantly cheaper and easier to do on a large scale than attempting to genetically modify other plants to create the drug. Furthermore, with the current regulations in place on cultivating coca plants, it is unlikely that this new method will have a significant effect on the illegal cocaine trade.
The findings of this study are still very important for pharmaceutical applications. The ability to create cocaine from tobacco plants could be used to treat conditions such as pain relief and depression.
The study was recently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav
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