Scientists have determined the DNA sequence of the opium poppy genome, uncovering key steps in how the plant evolved to produce the pharmaceutical compounds used to make vital medicines. The discovery may pave the way for scientists to improve yields and the disease resistance of the medicinal plant, securing a reliable and cheap supply of the most effective drugs for pain relief and palliative care. The breakthrough, by researchers at the University of York in partnership with the Wellcome Sanger Institute, UK, and international colleagues, reveals the origins of the genetic pathway leading to the production of the cough suppressant noscapine and the painkiller drugs morphine and codeine. The seminal work was reported online on August 30, 2018 in Science. The article is titled “The Opium Poppy Genome and Morphinan Production.” Co-corresponding author, Professor Ian Graham, from the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products, Department of Biology at the University of York, said: “Biochemists have been curious for decades about how plants have evolved to become one of the richest sources of chemical diversity on earth. Using high-quality genome assembly, our study has deciphered how this has happened in opium poppy. At the same time this research will provide the foundation for the development of molecular plant breeding tools that can be used to ensure there is a reliable and cheap supply of the most effective painkillers available for pain relief and palliative care for societies in not just developed, but also developing world countries.” Synthetic biology-based approaches to manufacturing compounds such as noscapine, codeine, and morphine are now being developed whereby genes from the plant are engineered into microbial systems such as yeast to enable production in industrial fermenters.
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