Two biotech companies are using the tobacco plant, Nicotiana benthamiana, as bio-factories to produce a key protein from the coronavirus that can be used in a vaccine.
“There’s obvious irony there,” says James Figlar, executive vice president for research and development for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Reynolds owns Kentucky BioProcessing, one of the companies working on a COVID-19 vaccine from plants.
“If you wanted to be cynical about it, you could,” he says. “But we tend to think of it as like at the end of the day, the tobacco plant in and of itself is still just a plant.”
To make its vaccine, the company starts with tobacco seeds that they plant in a greenhouse. When the plants are approximately 25 days old, they’re dipped into a solution containing agrobacteria. These are microorganisms that infect plants. In this case, they’ve been modified to contain instructions for making a protein from the coronavirus. The plants take up those instructions.
Seven days after being exposed to the agrobacteria, “we harvest the plant, go through an extraction and purification process, and at the end of the cycle, we have 99.9 percent pure protein, says company president Hugh Haydon.
A separate set of plants produces a tiny particle for packaging the viral protein. The result is something that can be injected into a human as a vaccine — and will prompt an immune response that should, in theory, protect someone from dying from COVID-19.