Researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam have altered tobacco to produce large yields of artemisinin – the most effective treatment for malaria but still without a cheap and reliable source. Artemisinin is used in the most effective treatments against malaria, the discovery of which was worth a Nobel Prize. However, it too expensive to be widely accessible. While malaria deaths fell by 60% worldwide in recent years (according to WHO), half of a million people still died with the disease in 2015. Part of the problem is that artemisinin is extracted from a herb (Artemisia annua), which produces low yields and often has an erratic supply.
To tackle this problem, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology looked into plant synthetic biology.
In a work published in eLife, the researchers developed a method to produce artemisinin with tobacco– a popular plant in biotechnology, since it is a source of biomass (for Deinove’s biofuels, for example) and recombinant proteins (it was used to produce antibodies for ebola).
The researchers inserted several genes in the chloroplasts‘ genome (a trend in genetically modified plants). These genes code for all the proteins involved in the metabolic pathway to produceartemisinic acid in A. annua. This method of inserting all genes at the same time was namedCOSTREL.
After selecting the most productive plants from hundreds of variants (with different gene arrangements and accessory genes), the researchers had a tobacco plant that expressed promising quantities artemisinic acid in its leaves.