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NEW TOBACCO BREEDING WILL ADAPT PLANT TO NOVEL USES

By Doug Tattershall

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The project will develop fundamental tobacco varieties that exhibit characteristics optimal for the plant's new role as a production vehicle for new medicinal substances, industrial enzymes, specialty polymers and other products.

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Sept. 8, 1999 – (Lexington, Ky.) – The Tobacco and Health Research Institute (THRI) at the University of Kentucky has initiated a new research project designed to customize the tobacco plant for commercial molecular farming applications.

The project, which will be conducted collaboratively by THRI and UK’s College of Agriculture, will develop fundamental tobacco varieties that exhibit characteristics optimal for the plant’s new role as a production vehicle for new medicinal substances, industrial enzymes, specialty polymers and other products. The new varieties will be the first of their kind.

"Traditionally, universities have been the source of the world’s agricultural crop varieties, but we are unaware of any comprehensive effort to develop new cultivars of any crop species specifically for molecular farming applications. We are very happy that THRI and UK are taking the lead in this very important endeavor," Maelor Davies, director of THRI, said.

The use of molecular biology techniques to develop tobacco plants making useful new materials has been possible for many years. THRI has been examining factors that would encourage wider commercial adoption of this technology as a new production system for a variety of useful materials. However, several aspects of current tobacco production are not best suited for the new use of the crop.

Direct seeding, close-growing practices, machine harvesting, disease and insect resistance and a reduced reliance on manual labor are all desirable characteristics which would lower production costs and thereby help tobacco to be cost-competitive for molecular farming.

The UK researchers plan to use the germplasm collections and extensive expertise in tobacco genetics and breeding at the university to develop new plants incorporating these features. The project’s ultimate goal is a new plant variety adapted specifically to this entirely new role.

"Tobacco production practices have been examined in the context of molecular farming applications before, but the THRI/College of Agriculture project is taking a revolutionary approach," Davies said.

The research is a collaboration that includes Orlando Chambers and Susheng Gan of THRI and Robert Pearce, Glenn Collins, William Maksymowicz and Robert Miller of the College of Agriculture. Kenneth Hunter, who is coming to THRI this fall from a position in the tobacco seed industry, will do much of the laboratory and fieldwork in the project.


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