Genetic engineering transforms tobacco plant into an antimalaria drug factory

Tobacco, the plant responsible for the most preventable deaths worldwide, may soon become the primary weapon against one of the world’s deadliest diseases. Researchers have engineered tobacco plants to produce the chemical precursor to artemisinin, the best antimalarial drug on the market. Artemisinin is naturally made in tiny amounts by a small brownish plant called Artemisia annua. But several years ago researchers transplanted the drugmaking genes into yeast, allowing them to collect the compound from a microbial brew. The fermentation process is still relatively expensive, however. So researchers decided to transplant the suite of genes needed to synthesize artesinic acid into tobacco, an inexpensive, high-volume crop (pictured) that’s already grown worldwide, as they report this week in eLife. The team calculates that harvesting artemisinic acid from a plot of land 200 square kilometers—less area than a city the size of Boston—would provide enough artemisinin to meet the entire worldwide demand. Down the road, the authors suggest that tobacco plants may serve as factories for producing other complex drugs.