Plant Power in Ingeniøren: 'pharmaceuticals from sunlight and tobacco' – University of Copenhagen

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27 May 2015

Plant Power in Ingeniøren: 'pharmaceuticals from sunlight and tobacco'

Forskolin production

Professor Poul Erik Jensen, Professor Birger Lindberg Møller and their research groups from Plant Power are demonstrating that it is possible to use tobacco plant chloroplasts to produce herbal Forskolin, which today is used in sleeping pills, diet pills and against heart disease.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen's Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences utilizes tobacco plant chloroplasts to produce herbal Forskolin, which is used in sleeping pills, diet pills and against heart disease. (Photo: Lennart Soegaard-Hoyer, Ingeniøren)

The trick is to transfer the synthesis pathway for forskolin from the original medicine plant, named Coleus forskohlii, into tobacco plants to increase the production yield. Many valuable compounds including forskolin can only be extracted in very low yield from their natural source since the plants only produce enough to protect inself from insects and other threats. This makes the production of many natural pharmaceuticals a costly affair.

"Can we get this system to work, we can also get it to produce e.g. bioplastics or substances used against certain cancers", says Poul Erik Jensen.

Coleus forskohlii is grown in large fields in India, but we do not have to use valuable farm land for the production. By tranfering the genes to tobacco we can take the production into a common greenhouse in for example Denmark. 

The tobacco plant is "re-wired" so the synthesis pathway is linked directly to the chloroplasts in the leafs making the production much more efficient than in the medical plant Coleus forskohlii: When the Sun shines on the tobacco plant the photosynthesis starts and releases electrons as a direct energy source for the enzymes producing forskolin. This goes much faster than in the medical plants, where the electrons are led through several stages of storage before they are slowly released to the enzymes when needed.

This is the first step along the way leading to great potentials. As an example Poul Erik Jensen mentions the anti-cancer compound taxol (also named paclitaxel) which today is produced by organic synthesis but is very costly to synthesize due to it's high level of complexity. In the future it will be possible to produce taxol in a much cheaper and cleaner way by transfering it's synthesis pathway to for instance tobacco.

Photo-bioreactor at the partner-company Agrotech

Another great production host is the blue-green algae also named cyanobacteria. They are also using photosynthesis like plants but can be grown in closed tanks (photo-bioreactors) in high amounts. One of the partners in Plant Power is the company AgroTech who has such a photo-bioreactor of 500L.

One prospect for the future is to make the cyanobacteria excrete the valuable compounds which can then be collected continously without having to kill the cyanobacteria. This would secure an efficient continous production. 

Read the full story here (in Danish)