Few people realize it, but tobacco has remarkable potential to do some good. For years now, laboratory scientists have been inserting human and animal genes into tobacco plants, using recombinant (gene-splicing) technology to develop useful new medicines, biopolymers and industrial enzymes. This work is still in the experimental stage — no tobacco-produced gene products are on the market yet — but they’re coming. Among the substances in development are new antibiotics, biodegradable plastics, a tooth-protecting solution and cancer drugs. All are being created and produced inside the ”evil weed.”
This is possible because tobacco is an ideal natural factory for recombinant techniques. Classic recombinant technology uses genetically altered bacteria, raised in large fermentation tanks, to produce the desired molecules. The method is cumbersome and costly — actual production, on top of R&D costs, requires a large capital outlay for lab equipment and expensive supplies. Because bacteria are simple things, there’s a limit to what they can produce. Plants, in contrast, are prolific, tireless and multi-talented. ”If bacteria are a biological toolbox with a hammer and a couple of screwdrivers, then a plant is like a complete wood shop and machine shop,” says David R. McGee, senior vice president with Biosource Technologies, a California company that is growing antibiotics in Kentucky tobacco fields and has built the world’s first manufacturing facility to process bioengineered tobacco.
Various plants are useful in ”molecular farming,” but tobacco stands out. ”It’s the lab mouse of the plant world, the plant on which a lot of original genetics work was done,” says Arnold Foudin, a biotechnology scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture. Two methods are used to create new substances in tobacco. One, used by Croptech Corporation, a company in Blacksburg, Va., is to splice genes directly into the tobacco plant’s genome. The second, used by Biosource Technologies, produces new proteins by genetically altering the tobacco mosaic virus — one of the best-understood viruses of any kind — then mechanically ”infecting” tobacco plants using high-pressure sprayers. This altered virus commandeers the plant’s cellular machinery to produce more of the desired new protein.
These techniques could provide a new outlet for thousands of small tobacco farmers whose livelihoods are linked to the precarious future of the cigarette industry. Rod Kuegel of Owensboro, Ky., whose family has grown tobacco since the turn of the century, began ”molecular farming” six years ago, setting aside five acres of tobacco to grow drugs for Biosource. For this he makes a $700 to $800 profit per acre — less than what he would make growing for cigarette companies, but double what he would make growing corn. The new technology is also good for the spirit. ”It’s great,” Kuegel says, ”to have something positive about tobacco for a change.”