Nicotiana benthamiana is a close relative of tobacco. This herbaceous plant grows amongst the rocks and cliffs of northern Australia and is used as a vaccine bio-factory. Now, an international team of scientists led by researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Australia, has discovered that it could help in the massive production of vaccines against the new coronavirus.
These days, researchers are in a race against time to find the vaccine that will protect us against the new coronavirus. Also to develop diagnostic products, all based on proteins. A major problem, once developed, is their mass production at low cost.
One solution to these obstacles could be molecular agriculture, that is, using plants as bio-factories. Plants can be grown in large quantities using simple agricultural technologies available to developing countries, which lack sophisticated protein production methods, such as those using animal cell crops.
"We started the project with the Newcotiana consortium three years ago with the idea of making plants capable of making greater quantities and better qualities of vaccines and antibodies when COVID-19 was not known," Waterhouse said.
What biotechnologists would do would be to inject or infiltrate into the leaf of Nicotiana benthamiana the DNA instructions on how to make the antibody or vaccine against COVID-19 and the plant would produce the vaccine in its cells.
"As we move forward, it will be necessary to respond quickly to new strains of viruses that emerge. In recent years we have seen the SARS, the MERS and now the COVID-19. It is fortunate that we are reaching the level of understanding of this bio-factory plant and that we have advanced in the Newcotiana H2020 project as much as we have, allowing and providing new and better ways to meet current and future challenges" Waterhouse has declared.
The Benthamian Nicotiana
Nicotiana benthamiana can also be a key crop for disease-resistant crops that survive climate change.
It was first described by the surgeon aboard the British Royal Navy brig HMS Beagle on his third voyage around Australia. In 1936 Sir John Cleland, a renowned Australian naturalist, microbiologist, mycologist and ornithologist, collected the seed of a plant growing in central Australia, which has spread and passed from one laboratory to another all over the world.
The genome of Nicotiana benthamiana has about 60,000 genes, approximately twice that of an ordinary plant.
"It’s a special plant because it’s being used for a broad spectrum of vaccines and antibodies, including Ebola and now COVID-19," Professor Waterhouse said. "Plants don’t usually produce antibodies, it’s something animals do".
Waterhouse has been collecting and studying different ecotypes of this plant and has made an expedition to central Australia to find the plant. His team is also using Nicotiana benthamiana to design disease-resistant crops.