Tobacco for health with new plant breeding techniques

The University of Oxford participates in the EU-funded NEWCOTIANA project, a research and innovation initiative that combines several new plant breeding techniques to produce medical and cosmetic products in tobacco plants.

NEWCOTIANA is a 7.2M H2020 EU project coordinated by scientists at the Institute for Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology (IBMCP) from the Spanish Research Council (CSIC) with participation of 19 industrial and academic partners form 8 European countries and Australia.

Taking advantage of cutting-edge molecular breeding methodologies, researchers will develop new varieties of tobacco and its wild relative Nicotiana benthamiana to produce added-value compounds such as antibodies, vaccines and drugs in a sustainable manner.

The NEWCOTIANA consortium will apply new plant breeding techniques to turn tobacco leaves into efficient plant factories for medical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products. The same is true for the leaves of Nicotiana benthamiana, a dwarf tobacco relative from Australia which is specially suited for indoors production of bio-pharmaceuticals. In this way, improved varieties (‘newcotiana’ plants) will be bred to produce vaccines, antibodies, and other health-promoting substances including anti-aging or anti-inflammatory compounds.

Cutting-edge breeding technologies include the so-called CRISPR technique, also known as genome editing, which offers unprecedented opportunities for crop breeding. Another breeding techniques that researchers will apply are modern forms of grafting, or infiltration for temporary gene expression.

"We will breed new varieties of tobacco and Nicotiana benthamina that will work safely and efficiently as biofactories," explains Professor Renier van der Hoorn, a leading scientist in the project. "Plants will be used as production platforms for molecular farming to harvest high value medical substances."

By taking advantage of NPBTs, NEWCOTIANA is expected to contribute to revive the traditional cultivation of tobacco, creating new applications that are good for health, and revitalizing rural areas in decline with high-value products in line with the European Knowledge-Based Economy.

Professor van der Hoorn will have an important contribution to NEWCOTIANA by investigating how to reduce the degradation of pharmaceutical proteins in plants. These pharmaceutical proteins are often degraded by plant enzymes and the removal of these enzymes will dramatically improve this protein expression platform and facilitate the production of new pharmaceuticals in plants.