Super Plants: Could Re-Wired Plants Be the New Cancer Killers?

Danish researchers are working on changing plants' inner workings to make complex drugs and chemicals.

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The chemical lab of the future could look like a farm, with thousands of plants naturally using photosynthesis to produce complex drugs, chemicals, and biofuels, according to a Danish research team.

Research published in the February 8 edition of Trends in Plant Science suggests the complex chemical reactions involved in photosynthesis could be rerouted to automatically produce mass quantities of rare, valuable medicines and complex chemicals that are artificially produced in chemical labs today.

"We're talking about compounds such as morphine and chemicals used to treat cancer," Birger Lindberg Møller, the lead researcher says. "It'd make our society bio-based and much more independent of oil," because the energy to make these chemicals would come from the sun, not fossil fuels, he says. Chemicals that are dangerous, difficult and costly to make in a lab would be made naturally by the plants.

The idea of harnessing photosynthesis, a naturally occurring process that allows plants to turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into food, for human use isn't new. In 2010, French scientists announced that they had transformed the chemical energy produced by photosynthesis into electrical energy. Photosynthesis is one of the most efficient energy-creating processes scientists have discovered, so, theoretically, great amounts of chemicals or electricity could be created with very little waste.

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While your home might one day run on plant power, chemical labs might also become plant based. Møller says that, worldwide, plants already produce more than 200,000 complex chemicals. Scientists could use a restructured form of photosynthesis to produce and harvest those chemicals in greater quantities, or rewire plants to produce chemicals that were previously only able to be synthesized in a lab.

"Many [chemicals produced by plants] are valuable to humans, for example as pharmaceuticals, but are present in very low amounts or are quite difficult to isolate," he wrote.

Møller envisions a future where plants' internal systems are re-engineered to create rare chemicals, such as artemisinin, a powerful anti-malarial drug that is found in trace amounts in only one plant worldwide. The plant would be rewired so that instead of making trace amounts of the drug, it would make lots of it.

The technology is still about a decade away from being a viable commercial use, he says. "The issue to overcome is scaling up," he says. "You need to grow the plants in a very efficient manner to harvest the chemicals."