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Scientists claim to have hacked tobacco plant to produce cocaine in its leaves

Nov 29, 2022
Biochemists have tried for more than a century to map out how cocaine is made by the coca plant but haven’t understood how a specific chemical precursor is converted into a section of the cocaine molecule, reports Futurism. The scientists from the Kunming Institute of Botany in Chin

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Scientists in China claim to have hacked a close relative of the tobacco plant to produce cocaine in its leaves.

Biochemists have tried for more than a century to map out how cocaine is made by the coca plant but haven’t understood how a specific chemical precursor is converted into a section of the cocaine molecule, reports Futurism.

The scientists from the Kunming Institute of Botany in China say that mystery is now solved.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, notes that the scientists were able to identify two missing enzymes (EnCYP81AN15 and EnMT4) “necessary for the biosynthesis of the tropane skeleton in cocaine.”

The scientists made the discovery while hacking a relative of a tobacco plant, Nicotiana benthamiana, allowing it to grow the enzymes. The discovery could have medical implications, such as using the process to produce similar compounds for medical purposes.

The researchers note that cocaine has been used as a topical anesthesia of the mucous membranes.

In 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a New Drug Application to market Numbrino, a cocaine hydrochloride nasal spray. Produced by the Lannett Company, Inc., the topical solution is sold to doctors who specialize in the ears, nose, and throat.

In 2017, the FDA also approved a cocaine hydrochloride product called Goprelto, intended for use as a painkiller during surgeries and procedures in the nasal cavities. 

“This study not only reports a near-complete biosynthetic pathway of cocaine and provides new insights into the metabolic networks of tropane alkaloids (cocaine and hyoscyamine) in plants but also enables the heterologous synthesis of tropane alkaloids in other (micro)organisms, entailing significant implications for pharmaceutical production,” the study authors report.

Per Interesting Engineering, the modified plant could produce about 400 nanograms of cocaine per milligram of dried leaf, which is about one 25th of the yield of an average coca plant.

“At present, the available production of cocaine in tobacco is not enough to meet the demand on a mass scale,” one of the researchers told New Scientist, via Futurism.

Researchers believe the discovery could lead to the development of new drugs, without cocaine’s addictive properties, and could be replicated in other organisms, such as yeast, with higher yields.

Indigenous to Australia, Nicotiana benthamiana is a model organism for plant research. It has also been engineered to produce proteins and enzymes used in the production of antibodies for ZMapp, an experimental biopharmaceutical drug under development as a possible treatment for Ebola virus.

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