New Tobacco Plant Produces Cocaine Inside Its Leaves In Peculiar Breakthrough

A new tobacco plant has produced cocaine inside its leaves in a peculiar breakthrough.
Credit: Alamy

Scientists have managed to produce a genetically modified tobacco plant that is able to produce cocaine in its leaves. 

The bizarre breakthrough comes after years of genetically modifying tobacco plants.

In 2010, university researchers discovered that tobacco had been ‘largely overlooked’ as an alternative to biofuel and when testing, they managed to successfully genetically manipulate the plant’s leaves to produce more oil.

Nine years later, scientists then ‘hacked’ the photosynthesis of tobacco plants.

This meant that after inserting new genes into the plants, they grew faster and 40 per cent bigger – which resulted in more crops.

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Now another breakthrough has been made, as scientists have managed to recreate the cocaine-producing biochemistry of the coca plant within the leaves of a relative to the tobacco plant.

Cocaine is naturally produced in the leaves of the Erythroxylum coca plant.

Researchers at the Kunming Institute of Botany, China, tried to recreate the process themselves – and with pretty remarkable results.

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Sheng-Xiong Huang and his fellow boffins recreated the unique biochemistry found in a coca plant in a tobacco plant relative, Nicotiana benthamiana. 

Using genetic modification, they created two enzymes – which generate cocaine once the leaves have dried out – known as EnMT4 and ENCYP81AN15.

This allows the tobacco plant to produce methylecgonone – a plant toxin found in coca leaves – inside its own leaves.

Tobacco plants
Scientists have managed to produce a genetically modified tobacco plant that is able to produce cocaine in its leaves. Credit: Google Maps

In the Journal of the American Chemical Society, they shared a report titled ‘Discovery and Engineering of the Cocaine Biosynthetic Pathway’, which explains the whole process. 

The research has also been helpful in providing ‘new insights into the metabolic networks of tropane alkaloids (cocaine and hyoscyamine) in plants’.

The team of scientists have also said that the study will offer ‘significant implications’ for pharmaceutical production.

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New Scientist explains that by reproducing the entire biochemical pathway in another plant, people could eventually manufacture the drug for scientific studies in the future.

Huang told the science news outlet: “At present, the available production of cocaine in tobacco is not enough to meet the demand on a mass scale.”

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