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News > Science and Tech

Scientists Develop GM Plant 3 Times Stronger Against Malaria

  • Artemisia annua, commonly known as sweet wormwood, is a shrub native to China and has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries.

    Artemisia annua, commonly known as sweet wormwood, is a shrub native to China and has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. | Photo: Creative Commons

Published 25 April 2018

Artemisia annua is the only natural source for a powerful compound against malaria. Now, the economy is pushing for its mass, industrialized and genetically modified production.

A team of scientists in China have developed a genetically modified sweet wormwood plant that produces three times more artemisinin, a key compound used to cure malaria.


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Artemisia annua, commonly known as sweet wormwood, is a shrub native to China and has been used for medicinal purposes for a long time. It's currently the only natural source of artemisinin, a powerful compound used for treating malaria, but it contains it in rather small quantities, failing to provide a sustained supply for pharmaceutical companies.

“Nearly half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria,” says Kexuan Tang of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, one of the authors of the study. “Our strategy for the large-scale production of artemisinin will meet the increasing demand for this medicinal compound and help address this global health problem.”

To do so, the team generated a “high-quality draft assembly of the 1.74-gigabase genome of A. annua, which is highly heterozygous, rich in repetitive sequences, and contains 63 226 protein-coding genes, one of the largest numbers among the sequenced plant species.” The team then used this information to genetically modified the plant to produce higher levels of artemisinin.

“A major impediment to the exploitation of the Asteraceae resources in basic and breeding sciences has been the absence of reference genome sequences; to date, only the sunflower and chrysanthemum genomes have been released,” Tang says. “The A. annua genome and transcriptome data we provide here will be a valuable asset for fundamental biological research on plant evolution and other topics as well as applied breeding programs.”

In their natural state, arteminisin represents between 0.1 and 1 percent of the A. annua leaves at dry weight. By leveraging the activity of the HMGR, FPS and DBR2 genes, scientists can increase its artemisin levels to 3.2 percent of the leaves' dry weight.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malaria affected about 216 million worldwide and killed 445,000 in 2016.


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The team sent sample seeds to Madagascar, the biggest producer of Artemisia annua in Africa, to start growing it and conduct field research. They will keep developing the research with the aim of reaching levels of arteminisin as high as 5 percent of the dried leaves' weight.

Through seed selection, humans have modified plants since there has been knowledge of agriculture. Its effectiveness has been proven, despite generally taking a long time in order to produce new varieties for different purposes. That's how corn was created thousands of years ago.

Now, genetics allow for a much faster modification. A process that used to take tens of years on the fields now takes a couple in a lab, raising concerns for a number of reasons.

However many environmental activists and farmers are worried about the invasive nature of genetically modified crops and their possible effects on human health. All across the world social movements are opposing them, especially in Europe and some Latin American countries such as Mexico, the cradle of corn.

While the controversy regarding GMOs often focuses on food products, its medical uses are often ignored in public discussion.

Increasing the production of arteminisin by industrializing its production may increase the availability of drugs aiming to cure malaria and even reduce its price, however, such focus on the benefits seem to at best sideline the uncertainty and lack of research surrounding possible negative effects of GMs in medicine, just as it has been the case with GMs in crops.

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