Genetically modify a tobacco plant to produce cocaine


Cocaine ( benzoylmethylecgonine ) is famous for its, shall we say, recreational use. In fact, it also acts as a vasoconstrictor and anesthetic, as well as a potent central nervous system stimulant. In fact, it is used to a limited extent in the medical field for surgical procedures involving the eye, ear, nose and throat.


As regards the chemical characteristics, it is an alkaloid (that is, a nitrogenous organic substance mainly of vegetable origin, consisting of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen) contained in the leaves of numerous coca plants (Erythroxylum coca), native to South America , mainly Peru, Colombia and Bolivia.

For over a century, scientists have tried to develop a method to synthesize large quantities of cocaine quickly and cheaply, but so far the results have been disappointing given the mysterious biochemical processes that lead to the synthesis of the substance. However, the authors of a new study from the Laboratory of Phytochemistry and Plant Resources and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Kunming Institute of Botany appear to have finally solved the puzzle by genetically modifying a type of tobacco plant to produce the white matter.

Previously, scientists sought to study a similar alkaloid, hyoscyamine , which is synthesized from the same chemical precursor as cocaine, oxobutanoic acid – or MPOA for short. In the synthesis of hyoscyamine, MPOA is converted to methyl oxobutanoate ( MMPO ), suggesting that the same pathway would work in cocaine production.


Solving the puzzle, the authors of the new study revealed that, unlike hyoscyamine, cocaine is not produced by the conversion of oxobutanoic acid to methyl oxobutanoate. It appears that MPOA is converted into cocaine through the activity of two enzymes.


To demonstrate this, the researchers genetically modified a species of tobacco plant to produce these enzymes, resulting in the synthesis of cocaine in the leaves of the plant. Although the amount produced was far lower than that observed in coca plants, the fact that the biosynthesis of cocaine has been unblocked opens the possibility of synthetically producing it for pharmaceutical purposes

  • Discovery and Engineering of the Cocaine Biosynthetic Pathway. (


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