Plants are amazing chemical factories. They take sunlight and use it and carbon dioxide to make energy for themselves. They also make oxygen, which we breathe. But they also make substances that can help heal us. Traditional Chinese medicine, for instance, makes use of herbs that are thought to have healing properties. And some drug companies use plant substances to make medicines — the breast cancer drug tamoxifen comes from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree.
Now comes word that plants could be even more useful. Researchers are reporting an advance in re-engineering photosynthesis to transform plants into solar-driven “bio-factories.” The result? The plants end up making ingredients, not only for medicines, but also for fabrics, fuels and other products, when exposed to sunlight.
Poul Erik Jensen and colleagues point out that photosynthesis does more than generate oxygen and energy. It also produces a wealth of natural chemical compounds, many of which have potential uses in medicines and other commercial products. However, evolution has cordoned off those functions into separate areas of the plant’s cells. Chloroplasts, the packets of chlorophyll that make plants green, generate the energy, sugar and oxygen. Another structure, the “endoplasmic reticulum,” produces a wide range of natural chemicals.
Their report describes how they moved an entire metabolic pathway needed to make natural bioactive chemicals to the chloroplast. “This opens the avenue for light-driven synthesis of a vast array of other natural chemicals in the chloroplast,” they say. In a nutshell, they could make cool compounds by just shining light on some cells.
What do you think? Could this have a real impact on how we make many chemicals? Do you think this could be scaled-up easily? What are some challenges that this research could face?