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Scientists successfully synthesized cocaine from a genetically-engineered tobacco plant, Mashable South East Asia reported.
The stimulant drug – labeled as a tropane alkaloid – has only been naturally created from the coca plants predominately found in South America. While the chemistry behind the synthesis remains a mystery, scientists remain interested in the narcotic because of its properties which allow for its use as a surgical anesthetic and painkiller for some terminal diseases.
A research team sought to understand this biosynthesis by studying a tropane alkaloid called hyoscyamine, which is created from a chemical precursor called MPOA.
MPOA is transformed into another molecule called MMPO during the synthesis of hyoscyamine, leading researchers to believe that the same route was involved in the creation of cocaine. Nonetheless, numerous studies have failed to demonstrate this.
But in their study, the team discovered that cocaine is actually produced when MPOA is converted into the narcotic thanks to two enzymes – EnCYP81AN15 and EnMT4.
They genetically modified the tobacco plant species Nicotiana benthamiana to make it produce the two enzymes. The final result was cocaine being created in the plant’s leaves, although in very tiny amounts.
Even so, the findings allow scientists to investigate if cocaine may be mass-produced in other plants and organisms.
Whether drug cartels emulate this process remains to be seen.