Researchers tweak tobacco plant to grow with fewer harmful compounds

Researchers have successfully tweaked a tobacco plant so that it grows leaves containing fewer harmful compounds and lower levels of the addictive chemical nicotine. The findings pave the way for potentially altering other plants to make them healthier, such as removing a problematic compound or increasing beneficial ones.

The work comes from researchers at North Carolina State University, where they created a new technique to reduce some of the harmful compounds found in tobacco leaves without negatively impacting other aspects of the plant. This included reducing the number of nitrosamines found in tobacco, as well as the nicotine level.

The idea of using specialized techniques to reduce the number of harmful compounds found in plants isn't new. What sets the latest work apart is its ability to reduce these carcinogenic substances without inadvertently increasing the amounts of other harmful compounds. The achievement was made possible by tinkering with the tobacco plant's DNA and genes.

The decreased levels of unwanted compounds were found in the modified plants grown both outdoors and in a greenhouse. The study reports that four carcinogenic compounds found in tobacco leaves were "significantly reduced" using the researchers' technique, which could possibly be used with other plants to make them healthier and boost their beneficial traits.

The study is the latest example of how modifying plants can help promote and protect human health. For example, researchers in Japan reported last month that they had successfully developed a cholera vaccine that comes in the form of rice. The edible rice was tweaked so that it produces a non-toxic form of cholera toxin B, giving the body's immune system the opportunity to build immunity when someone eats the rice.