Tobacco Plant Produces Cocaine Inside Its Leaves In Mind-Boggling Breakthrough

Chinese scientists have genetically modified a tobacco plant to produce cocaine inside its leaves in a mind-boggling new breakthrough. A study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society titled “Discovery and Engineering of the Cocaine Biosynthetic Pathway” outlined how scientists pulled off the feat.

  1. Cocaine is naturally derived from a plant. Well, sort of. It’s found in the leaves of the Erythroxylum coca plant. However, the scientists at the Kunming Institute of Botany wanted to see if they could somehow replicate the process in another plant. They did just that.
  2. They used Nicotiana benthamiana, part of the tobacco plant family. They genetically modified the plant to produce two enzymes that make cocaine when the leaves are dry. Those two leaves are called EnMT4 and EnCYP81AN15. Because of this, the tobacco plant could be said to produce its own methylecgonone, the tropane alkaloid in coca leaves. Whoa!
  3. The fact that they were able to do this is beyond impressive. As the study’s authors wrote: “Cocaine, the archetypal tropane alkaloid from the plant genus Erythroxylum, has recently been used clinically as a topical anesthesia of the mucous membranes. Despite this, the key biosynthetic step of the requisite tropane skeleton (methylecgonone) from the identified intermediate 4-(1-methyl-2-pyrrolidinyl)-3-oxobutanoic acid (MPOA) has remained, until this point, unknown.” They went on to share the two enzymes they used to change Nicotiana benthamiana’s genes and concluded with their results. Isn’t science cool?
  4. So, why did they want to do this? While the authors say their work creates a “near-complete biosynthetic pathway of cocaine,” some wonder why they needed or even wanted to do this. They claim the result of the study gives the world “new insights into the metabolic networks of tropane alkaloids (cocaine and hyoscyamine) in plants” while also informing the drug’s use in pharmaceuticals. A tobacco plant that produces cocaine is certainly strange, but it’s really fascinating too.
Jennifer has been the managing editor of Bolde since its launch in 2014. Before that, she was the founding editor of HelloGiggles and also worked as an entertainment writer for Bustle and Digital Spy. Her work has been published in Bon Appetit, Decider, Vanity Fair, The New York TImes, and many more.
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