University of Calgary

Researchers crack genetic codes for medicinal plant species

UToday HomeSeptember 13, 2011

By Leanne Yohemas

Dr. Peter Facchini, a professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary, has helped in identifying the genetic makeup for a large number of medicinal plant species and is making the codes available online.Dr. Peter Facchini, a professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary, has helped in identifying the genetic makeup for a large number of medicinal plant species and is making the codes available online. Photo by Riley BrandtResearchers from across Canada have identified the genetic makeup for a large number of medicinal plant species and are making the codes available online.

Researchers led by the University of Calgary’s Peter Facchini and Vincent Martin of Concordia University in Montreal are unraveling the genetic blueprints of 75 plant species that have potential applications in the pharmaceutical, natural health product, food and chemical industries.

“The creation of a public resource of genetic information for plants that produce a large number of important and valuable natural products is an important milestone in our project,” says Facchini, a biological sciences professor and co-leader of the PhytoMetaSyn Project, which includes scientists from across the country.

“We are completing the analysis of the genetic codes for nearly 75 plant species and are making them available online as they become available with the hopes of having the entire set in our web portal by the end of February 2012,” he says.

Plants contain specialized enzymes encoded by their unique genes that make them effective producers of medicines, flavours, fragrances, pigment, insecticides and other chemicals.

Having access to such genetic information is a critical aspect of research that targets the development of technologies to re-create plant pathways in microbes such as yeast. Synthetic biology, as it is known, also has the potential to combine genes from different plants to make new compounds not found in nature.

For example, Facchini’s ground-breaking discovery of the genes that allow the opium poppy to make codeine and morphine has led to making effective painkillers and creating plants that will only produce the more-valuable codeine. Other species have a diverse range of medicinal applications from anti-plaque agents, wart removal to anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer treatments.

“Genomic information of that nature and scale is a treasure trove for synthetic biologists,” says PhytoMetaSyn co-leader Martin.

The project also looks at the ethics, economics, legal and social implications of the science. “Who actually owns this genetic information?” asks Facchini. “We’re releasing it publically because we feel it belongs to everyone. We discovered it, but we didn’t invent it.”

The $13,602,100 PhytoMetaSyn Project is funded by Genome Canada, Genome Alberta, Genome Québec, Genome Prairie, Genome British Columbia, the National Research Council, the Ontario Ministry of Innovation and Research, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).