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
The project, which will be conducted collaboratively by THRI and UKs
College of Agriculture, will develop fundamental tobacco varieties that exhibit
characteristics optimal for the plants 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 worlds 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
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 projects 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.