LivingA tobacco plant could produce the coronavirus vaccine

A tobacco plant could produce the coronavirus vaccine

Nicotiana benthamiana is a close relative of tobacco. This herbaceous plant grows among the rocks and cliffs of northern Australia and is used as a biofactory for vaccines . Now, an international team of scientists led by researchers from the Queensland University of Technology, Australia, has discovered that it could aid in the mass production of vaccines against the new coronavirus .

These days, researchers are running a race against time to find the vaccine that allows us to protect ourselves against the new coronavirus. Also to develop diagnostic products, all of them based on proteins. A major problem, once developed, is their mass production at low cost.

A solution to these obstacles could be molecular agriculture , that is, using plants as bio-factories. Plants can be grown in large quantities using simple agricultural technologies available to developing countries , which lack sophisticated methods of protein production, such as those using animal cell cultures.

“We started the project with the Newcotiana consortium three years ago with the idea of making plants capable of manufacturing larger quantities and better qualities of vaccine and antibodies when COVID-19 was unknown,” said Waterhouse.

What biotechnologists would do would be to inject or infiltrate the Nicotiana benthamiana leaf with the DNA instructions on how to make the antibody or vaccine against COVID-19 and the plant would produce the vaccine in its cells.

“As we move forward, it will be necessary to respond quickly to new strains of viruses that emerge. In recent years we have seen SARS, MERS and now COVID-19.” “It is fortunate that we are reaching the level of understanding of this biofactory plant and that we have advanced in the Newcotiana H2020 project as much as we have, allowing and providing new and better ways to face current and future challenges, “stated Waterhouse.

Nicotiana benthamiana

Nicotiana benthamiana can also be key to growing crops that resist disease and survive climate change .

It was first described by the surgeon aboard the British Royal Navy brig HMS Beagle on its third voyage around Australia. In 1936 Sir John Cleland, renowned Australian naturalist, microbiologist, mycologist and ornithologist, collected the seed of a plant growing in central Australia, which has spread and passed from laboratory to laboratory around the world.

The genome of Nicotiana benthamiana has about 60,000 genes , roughly twice that of an ordinary plant.

“It is a special plant because it is being used for a wide spectrum of vaccines and antibodies, including those for Ebola and now those for COVID-19,” said Professor Waterhouse. “Plants do not usually produce antibodies, it is something that animals do .”

Waterhouse has been collecting and studying different ecotypes of this plant and has gone on an expedition to central Australia to find the plant. His team is also using Nicotiana benthamiana to engineer disease-resistant crops.

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