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Cracking medicinal plants' genetic codes

Scientists open gene database to public.
September 14, 2011
By Leanne Yohemas

Version française

Researchers from across Canada have identified the genetic makeup of a large number of medicinal plant species and are making the codes available to scientists and the public online.

PhytoMetaSyn co-leader Vincent Martin, a professor in the Department of Biology and Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics and Engineering.
PhytoMetaSyn co-leader Vincent Martin, a professor in the Department of Biology and Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics and Engineering.

The nation-wide group of researchers, led by the University of Calgary’s Peter Facchini and Vincent Martin of Concordia University, is unravelling the genetic blueprints of nearly 75 plant species that have potential applications in the pharmaceutical, natural health, food and chemical industries. Previously the efforts of scientists were focused on a fairly small number of plant species. 

“The creation of a public resource of genetic information for plants that produce a large number of important and valuable natural products is an important milestone in our project,” says Facchini, a professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary and co-leader of the PhytoMetaSyn Project, which started two years ago and involves scientists at universities and research institutes from across the country.

“We are completing the analysis of the genetic codes for nearly 75 plant species and are making them accessible online as they become available with the hopes of having the entire set in our web portal by the end of February 2012. Currently more than half of them are available on our website.”

Plants contain specialized enzymes encoded by their unique genes that make them effective producers of medicines, flavours, fragrances, pigment, insecticides and other chemicals. Many of these compounds are still produced commercially from plants. Having access to such genetic information is a critical aspect of this research, which targets the development of technologies to recreate plant pathways in microbes such as yeast.

Madagascar periwinkle
Madagascar periwinkle

New compounds not found in nature
Synthetic biology, as it is known, also has the potential to combine genes from different plants to make new compounds not found in nature. For example, Facchini’s groundbreaking discovery of genes that allow the opium poppy to make codeine and morphine has led to the manufacturing of effective painkillers in pharmaceutical factories.   

He’s also focused on the creation of plants that will produce only the more-valuable codeine. Other species being studied have a diverse range of medicinal applications ranging from anti-plaque agents and wart removal to anti-inflammatory and cancer treatments.

“Genomic information of that nature and scale is a treasure trove for synthetic biologists,” says PhytoMetaSyn co-leader Vincent Martin, a professor in the Concordia Department of Biology and Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics and Engineering. “It provides access to genetic data that can be used to produce molecules on an industrial scale.”    

The project also has a team looking at the ethics, economics, and legal and social implications of the science. “An interesting question is, who actually owns this genetic information?” asks Facchini, who is also Canada Research Chair in Plant Metabolic Processes Biotechnology. “We’re releasing it publically because we feel it belongs to everyone. We discovered it, but we didn’t invent it.”

Opium poppy
Opium poppy

Tania Bubela, from the University of Alberta’s School of Public Heath, studies ethical issues relating to synthetic biology in the PhytoMetaSyn Project. “As with all new fields of research, maintaining the trust of the public and the regulators is key,” says Bubela. “What scientists do at this early stage will determine directions in the future.”
Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics
Vincent Martin works from Concordia’s stunning new Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics (CSFG), which will be inaugurated this fall during the sixth anniversary of the naming of Montreal as a UNESCO City of Design.

The CSFG was designed by a consortium of architects — Marosi+Troy, Cardinal Hardy and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte — and its construction has helped re-energize the surrounding Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood by creating a brilliantly attractive urban landscape.

Partners in research:
The total budget for the PhytoMetaSyn Project is $13,602,100 over four years, of which Genome Canada has contributed $6,443,100. Other project funders include Genome Alberta, Génome Québec, Genome Prairie, Genome British Columbia, the National Research Council, the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

Related links:
•    PhytoMetaSyn Project
•    University of Calgary
•    Concordia University

Media contacts:
Leanne Yohemas
Senior Communications Manager
Faculty of Science - University of Calgary
Office phone: 403-220-5144
Cell phone: 403-540-6552

Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins
Senior advisor, external communications 
Concordia University
Phone: 514-848-2424, ext. 5068


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