In a study that many would not have expected, scientists in China claim that, through genetic modifications, they have obtained cocaine produced by the tobacco plant.

According to New Scientist, quoted by Futurismresearchers have tried for decades to determine how the coca plant, from which cocaine is derived, produces the compound.

It’s a complex biochemical matter, and while more recently researchers have been able to map most of the plant’s process, one key element has continued to elude them: how a chemical precursor called MPOA is converted into a section of the cocaine molecule.

That missing link is exactly what scientists at the Kunming Institute of Botany in China say they have uncovered. As detailed in a new paper published in Journal of the American Chemical Societyresearchers were able to identify two previously unknown enzymes, called EnCYP81AN15 and EnMT4, in the cocaine production line.

How was the cocaine produced by the tobacco plant obtained?

Scientists have modified a gene of Nicotiana benthamiana, a close relative of the tobacco plant, to obtain the cocaine produced by the tobacco plant. The plant produced 400 nanograms of cocaine per milligram of dry leaf, or about 25th the yield of a regular coca plant.

Of course, this innovation was not developed for recreational consumption. Although it is best known as a party drug, cocaine actually has some longstanding medical uses. Ideally, this advance not only sheds light on a biochemical mystery, but helps ensure that the substance, an anesthetic that as recently as 2020 was FDA-approved for controlled use in a nasal spray, is available for pharmaceutical use.

“Currently, the available production of cocaine from tobacco is not enough to meet the demand on a mass scale,” said Sheng-Xiong Huang, the leader of the study.

“This discovery may allow pharmaceutical companies to essentially ferment it and thus get rid of plant-based production altogether,” said Benjamin Lichman, a researcher at the University of York who was not involved in the research.

A technology that is not accessible to everyone

Lichman acknowledged that there is also the possibility that modifying plants to produce banned substances could become a factor in the drug trade.

“This will have a huge impact on the supply chain and potentially impact illicit production,” he said.

For now, it is unlikely that any cartel will obtain this technology, at least not for some time. This new process of gene hacking isn’t exactly cheap, and it’s nowhere near scalable.

But it is interesting work and could lay the groundwork for an interesting biochemical and pharmaceutical study to follow.

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