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Scientists decode opium poppy genome

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News from: University of York

Scientists have determined the DNA code of the opium poppy genome, uncovering key steps in how the plant evolved to produce the pharmaceutical compounds used to make vital medicines.

The discovery may pave the way for scientists to improve yields and the disease resistance of the medicinal plant, securing a reliable and cheap supply of the most effective drugs for pain relief and palliative care.

The breakthrough, by researchers at the University of York in partnership with the Wellcome Sanger Institute, UK, and international colleagues, reveals the origins of the genetic pathway leading to the production of the cough suppressant noscapine and painkiller drugs morphine and codeine.

Co-corresponding author, Professor Ian Graham, from the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products, Department of Biology at the University of York, said: “Biochemists have been curious for decades about how plants have evolved to become one of the richest sources of chemical diversity on earth. Using high quality genome assembly, our study has deciphered how this has happened in opium poppy.

“At the same time this research will provide the foundation for the development of molecular plant breeding tools that can be used to ensure there is a reliable and cheap supply of the most effective painkillers available for pain relief and palliative care for societies in not just developed but also developing world countries”.

Synthetic biology based approaches to manufacturing compounds such as noscapine, codeine and morphine are now being developed whereby genes from the plant are engineered into microbial systems such as yeast to enable production in industrial fermenters. However, opium poppy remains the cheapest and sole commercial source of these pharmaceutical compounds by some distance.

Plants have the capacity to duplicate their genomes and when this happens there is freedom for the duplicated genes to evolve to do other things. This has allowed plants to develop new machinery to make a diverse array of chemical compounds that are used to defend against attack from harmful microbes and herbivores and to attract beneficial species such as bees to assist in pollination.

The research, ‘Understanding the regulation of alkaloid biosynthesis in opium poppy and breeding new varieties’ was partly funded by BBSRC.

ENDS


Tags: fundamental bioscience genetics synthetic biology University of York news