University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Plant Sciences Departmental Seminars > Unlocking the secrets of medicinal crops: from artemisinin to morphine, why are plants still better than bugs at making these drugs?

Unlocking the secrets of medicinal crops: from artemisinin to morphine, why are plants still better than bugs at making these drugs?

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Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) remains one of the most important medicinal plants in the world. The discovery of a 10 gene cluster responsible for the production of the anti-cancer compound noscapinein opium poppy provided the tools for molecular breeding of new commercial varieties. The discovery of a novel P450 – oxidoreductase gene fusion described the last unknown step in synthesis of the painkiller drugs morphine and codeine proving a valuable tool for development of bespoke, high yielding poppy varieties.

The Chinese medicinal plant Artemisia annua (Sweet Wormwood or Qing Hao) is the primary source of the leading anti-malarial drug artemisinin. Characterisation and genetic mapping of traits responsible for production of artemisinin has enabled development of F1 hybrid seed that can deliver a robust source of this vital anti-malarial drug for the developing world. Genetic dissection of artemisinin synthesis demonstrated the importance of non-enzymatic conversions in the final steps of artemisinin synthesis in A. annua with significant implications for future production in native versus heterologous host systems.

Noscapine, morphinans and artemisinic acid (an artemisinin precursor) have all been targets for metabolic engineering in heterologous host systems. In this talk I will compare these different production routes with high yielding plant based field production that currently delivers active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) in the price range of $200-300 per Kg.

Many other plant species also produce valuable bioactive molecules but in amounts that are not commercially viable. For example the Euphorbiaceae or spurge family produce a diverse range of diterpenoids, many of which have pharmacological activity. We are elucidating diterpenoid biosynthetic pathways from the spurge family and developing new production platforms for their synthesis. I will reflect on the different production routes for high value chemicals from plants.

This talk is part of the Plant Sciences Departmental Seminars series.

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