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Plant Drug Factories

December 27, 2016

Stressing out plant cells can coax them into revealing medically-useful chemistry.



Medical secrets from plants. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Many drugs, like the cancer-fighting drug taxol, come from plants. But they’re produced in tiny quantities, and only when the plants are under stress. Stanford chemist Elizabeth Satteley says that means the drugs are in short supply.

ELIZABETH SATTELY (Stanford University):

So what my lab is trying to do is figure out how do plants produce these molecules, and take those mechanisms and put them into some other organism.


That means finding the plant genes responsible for making the drug. So Sattely subjects plant cells to the same sorts of stress factors that trigger production in the wild. Then she looks to see what genes in the cells become active, assuming that among them are those that produce the compound. The goal is to engineer this genetic machinery into fast-growing plants, yeasts and bacteria to make these life-saving drugs available to everyone. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Story by Bob Hirshon