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article imagePlant Roots May Become Biofactories

By Bob Ewing     Oct 31, 2007 in Science
What is pretty and purple and a possible source of medicines, food flavorings and other commercial products. If you said the periwinkle you would be correct. Rice University bio-engineers have release a report that is leading them to this possibility.
The hairy roots of the pretty, purple, periwinkle may be used to produce medicines, food flavorings and other commercial products.
Bio-engineers from Rice University have recently reported an advance in the ability to tap the immense potential of "hairy roots" and the periwinkle is the plant with which they are working.
"The species of periwinkle that we're studying produces a wide variety of alkaloids -- including the anti-cancer drugs vincristine and vinblastine," said study co-author Ka-Yiu San. "Hairy roots have a number of advantages over cell cultures as a production platform for these compounds."
The hairy roots, in question, are a type of tumor that forms on plants infected by the soil bacterium Agrobacterium rhizogenes. When a specific gene is inserted into the bacterium, researchers can integrate that gene into the host plant's DNA.
Over time, the host plant will develop a system of fuzzy-looking roots near the site of the infection. The hairy roots are transgenic which means that they contain the genes of both the host plant and the bacterium.
San is Rice's E.D. Butcher Professor of Bioengineering and in the press release stated that scientists have long wanted to harness the production prowess of hairy roots for industry, but first they must determine the long-term stability of the genetically altered roots.
In this recent study, San, working with Rice graduate student Christie Peebles, described the methods they used to keep a transgenic hairy root culture alive for 4-and-a-half years.
First, they infected a periwinkle plant with a bacterium carrying a gene for fluorescence. They then transferred root tips into fresh liquid every four weeks, and maintained a stable root culture that had the characteristic fluorescent glow produced by the gene.
San and his collaborators plan to develop genetic modifications to the metabolic pathways of the transgenic periwinkle roots; these changes that will allow them to produce far more vincristine and vinblastine than is normally produced by a regular periwinkle plant.
Iowa State University's Jacqueline Shanks, adjunct professor of bioengineering at Rice, and plant biologist Susan Gibson of the University of Minnesota are the study’s co-authors.
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