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When plants are chemical factories.

June 26, 2019

Let me introduce you to another Australian Native plant, Nicotiana Benthamiana and yes, you can smoke or chew it:

This unassuming little plant that grows across WA, the Northern Territory and Queensland is quite the laboratory super-star thanks to its ability to act as a virtual chemical factory.  In fact, it has been put forward as a possible ‘premier plant cell biology model‘ by a number of academics in this field.

I came across this when looking at research into a plant-derived peptide that a customer of mine will be stocking.  On hearing that the ingredient I was reading about, a peptide,  was ‘grown’ using this plant as its factory I was somewhat stunned.  I hadn’t known before today that plants can be used in this way and if I’m honest, I still don’t fully understand how it all works.  It is not really surprising, given the complex nature of the science involved.

Like so many other Indigenous Australian plants, this plant was scooped up in the great white take-over of early settlement.  Seeds and specimens of many botanical species were bagged, labelled and spirited away by boat to Kew gardens and other places.  I never really thought much about this until relatively recently but now I’ve become WOKE (awakened I think it means) it really sucks.  What sucks is the fact that the local people whose interest in, and use of plants like these informed much of the early picking have rarely received anything other than a token mention in dispatches for their time. The fact that Australian Intellectual Property is still trouping out of the country without even saying thank you is a little hard to stomach. But here is where we find ourselves and here is where we need to start making amends so that’s what I’ll try to do.

As the name suggests this is a nicotine plant.  I found a great summary article on the indigenous uses of this in the Australian newspaper by Nicolas Rothwell who describes beautifully how the dried leaves of this plant are ground up with ash (to help release the nicotine) before being shaped into a pellet and chewed – this is the traditional way.  This plant,  Pituri,  formed part of Central Australian and Western Desert culture (the word Mingkulpa is used to talk about cultural significance of the plant and rituals) and is still used today typically by women elders. If, like me, you are concerned about how little thought is given to Indigenous Australia with regard to plant knowledge, this may be useful, it is a submission to IP Australia on this very topic.  It is good to see that people are stepping up and trying to put some protections in place. This review from March 2018 is also very good. 

The Westerners who first ‘stole’ the plant matter in order to study it were quite disappointed to find that the active was only tobacco.  The tobacco from this native Australian plant isn’t quite up to the level of productivity of the plant typically used to make cigarettes, apparently that came from Mexico and South America.  However, this plant has much more exciting things to offer.

Part of the scientific interest in this tobacco plant is its lack of immune system. As I mentioned I’m still trying to get to grips with this but this article states that as a key factor making this plant a useful candidate for studying plant disease and how plants might survive in other climates or even on other planets – useful research given the mess we are making down here…

In addition, the plant is also being looked at for the production of terpenoid chemistry, a chemistry that has many uses in cosmetics for flavours, fragrances and even antimicrobials.

Before I wrap this up I guess it is worth asking the question ‘what do you think about using plants as chemical factories?”  Apparently this work doesn’t meet the definition of ‘genetic modification’ so the ingredients made are GMO free (if that is important to you).  I get asked quite often about the origins of ingredients and where I used to be able to say ‘synthetic’ or ‘natural’ and that would be it, now people want a much deeper answer. I’m usually really fine with giving people answers but some things are beyond our untrained comprehension so I do wonder of the merits in the discussion, especially given the general appetite for ‘if you don’t understand it, reject it’.  Maybe I’m being too harsh…

This really is the tip of the iceberg for this plant and my knowledge of the role it is playing in my cosmetic future.  I am going to carry on reading and if I find anything else out that is worthy of sharing I’ll pop it up here.

Amanda x


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