EU cash for plant cell biosynthesis

By Nick Taylor

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Metabolism

The production of pharmaceutical products in plant cells has been given a boost, after the European Union ploughed $8.8m into a research programme.

Funding was awarded to the SmartCell project, which aims to manipulate plant cells to produce commercially viable yields of pharmacologically active secondary metabolites.

VTT Technical Research Centre is coordinating the project, which is a collaboration between 14 leading European research institutes and five enterprises of varying sizes.

Kirsi-Marja Oksman-Caldentey, project coordinator and chief research scientist at VTT, said: "The opportunities offered by plant biotechnology could be much more extensively exploited in the pharmaceutical industry​.

The latest research methods can be used to intensify the production of valuable agents in plant cells; in a manner of speaking, plant cells could become real 'green factories'​."

Plants produce a wide range of secondary metabolites, some of which have been found to be pharmacologically active. However, these compounds are generally produced in very small amounts over a long period of time, making commercially viable extraction difficult.

The research aims to manipulate a plant cell’s secondary metabolite synthesis pathway to produce sufficient yield of a pharmacologically active compound. Initial research will focus on the synthesis of terpenes, which are produced by a wide variety of plants.

Terpenes were selected as their production showed promise in preliminary tests and because paclitaxel, a member of the same chemical family, is partially produced from plant cell cultures. Derivatives of terpenes include steroids, menthol, camphor and cannabinoids.

Similar manipulations have already been performed on microbes but the pathways within plant cells are considerably more complex.

The exact mechanisms used to synthesise small-molecular-weight compounds are not well understood, which poses difficulties for those trying to harness the pathways.

By bringing together researchers from fields including plant science, fermentation technology and biochemistry, the project hopes to gain a more complete understanding of secondary metabolite synthesis.

The intention is for institutions participating in the research to be given priority use of tools developed by the programme, but the technologies will also be made publicly available.

Work on the project is due to commence in January 2009 and run for four years, with a total budget of $12.5m.

Related topics Ingredients Processing equipment

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