Japanese researchers have announced they had identified a gene that transports nicotine through tobacco plants, a discovery that could pave the way to cigarettes free of the carcinogen.
It was already known that tobacco plants produce nicotine in their roots and carry it to their leaves, but it is the first time in the world that a transporter gene was identified, according to one of the researchers.
Experts at Kyoto University's Research Institute for Sustainable Humanosphere found the gene Nt-JAT1 transports nicotine to vacuoles, or bags accumulating water and other substances in the cells of tobacco leaves.
They confirmed yeasts with Nt-JAT1 carry nicotine in experiments performed jointly with Ghent University of Belgium, the research team said in a statement.
The finding "raised the possibility of developing a variety of tobacco that does not store nicotine in its leaves," said the team led by professor Kazufumi Yazaki.
"This would enable smokers to stem nicotine addiction without using anti-smoking goods," it said, adding it would also be good for nonsmokers if tobacco smoke did not contain nicotine.
The transport gene could be used not only for the tobacco industry but also for medical and agricultural purposes, said Nobukazu Shitan, assistant professor at the Japanese institute who is in the team.
"I wonder if cigarettes containing little nicotine would sell well. But the gene could also transport compounds that could be used as medicine," he told AFP.
Nicotine is part of a group of commonly found compounds called alkaloids.
Some alkaloids derived from plants are used to treat cancer and the gene discovery could be used to encourage plants to build up higher levels of useful alkaloids, he said.
Several other genes are also believed to be involved in carrying nicotine through tobacco plants although research on those has yet to be completed, Shitan said.
The finding of the study will be published in the online version of the Proceedings of National Academy of Science this week.