Scientists have found that the amount of carcinogens in tobacco can be reduced by silencing a specific gene in its plant, something that may lead to tobacco products with reduced amount of cancer-causing agents, especially smokeless tobacco products.
Professor Ralph Dewey and Assistant Professor Ramsey Lewis, both from North Carolina State University, joined hands with researchers from the University of Kentucky to deactivate the demethylase gene function that turns nicotine into nornicotine, which turns into the carcinogen N-nitrosonornicotine (NNN) as the tobacco is cured, processed and stored.
Upon comparison with "control" plant lines with normal levels of gene expression, the genetically modified tobacco plants showed a six-fold decrease in carcinogenic NNN, and a 50 percent overall reduction in the class of harmful compounds called tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNA) that have been implicated in various cancers in laboratory experiments.
In their study report, published online in Plant Biotechnology Journal, Lewis and Dewey say that targeted gene silencing can work as well in the field as it does on the lab bench.
"Creating a tobacco plant with fewer or no harmful compounds may also help with tobacco plants that are being used to create pharmaceuticals or other high-value products," Dewey said.
The researchers also revealed that knocking out the specific gene did not affect the plant's growth or resistance to insects or disease.
They, however, concede that the best way for people to avoid the risks associated with tobacco use is to avoid using tobacco products.