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Leaving smoking behind, tobacco may still be golden. 

Leading the Way With Tobacco

I'm not good at party conversation. I'm not shy, and I can hold up my end of a conversation on almost any topic. Except football. The only thing I know about football is figure skating, as in, figure skater Jo Jo Starbuck was once married to a football player.

Anyway, the problem with party talk is that I'm apt to corner a total stranger and tell him that because the tobacco plant contains all 20 amino acids, it is, therefore, the perfect medium for recombinant DNA. I find this utterly fascinating. Most partygoers do not.

My contention is, if you live in Virginia, this is hot stuff and you should know about it. We all know that tobacco played an incredible role in the history of Virginia. Many of our roads were developed to move tobacco to market. Entire cities grew up because of the leaf. It was an early form of currency in the state; people used to pay their taxes with it. And we all know its economic impact on the region.

We also know tobacco is under siege. Leaving its history as a medium for smoking materials behind for the space of this article, I would like to make a case for the embattled tobacco plant. Folks, there's gold in these leaves, maybe something far better than gold.

Tobacco is one of the world's most studied plants. As they did with the fruitfly, biologists have studied tobacco for generations. Arguably, we know more about tobacco than any other plant. The first virus discovered, the first of any kind, was the tobacco mosaic virus. Virology had to start somewhere, and the "where" was tobacco.

To date, tobacco's primary commercial usage has been for smoking materials. For the record, I don't smoke and I don't like being around it, but that's not the point here. In all likelihood, tobacco as a smoking material is not going to go away any time soon, if ever. But I contend that its commercial, historical and social importance is going to grow, perhaps in inverse relationship to its popularity for use in cigarettes, cigars, snuff and pipe tobacco.

Let's look at pharmaceuticals. The tobacco plant has a great capacity for manipulation. You (maybe not you personally, and certainly not me, but "you" as in some members of the human race) can take the tobacco plant and insert foreign genes into it. Call it recombinant DNA, genetic engineering, or biotechnology, it means the same thing, that somehow a gene from a glowworm or, for all I know, a cow, can be inserted into the genes of tobacco so that the resultant plant exhibits those genetic traits.

Take the glowworm. Thirteen years ago, scientists inserted a firefly gene into tobacco to create what is called luciferinase tobacco, i.e. tobacco that glowed in the dark. I have seen actual photos, which is another topic to avoid at parties, I've found, as in: "Would you care to see my pictures of luciferinase tobacco?" This glowing in the dark was not a particularly useful trait — it's not like it enabled farmers to harvest at night — but it showed it could be done, that you could cross traits not only between species, but also across kingdoms.

While glow-in-the-dark tobacco didn't catch on, the possibilities it opened up are incredible; the potential for pharmaceuticals alone is mind-boggling. Currently, one of the most expensive materials on earth is Interleukin 6 or 7 (there are 12 of them altogether, and they cause stem cells in bone marrow to divide and differentiate). If a farmer (pharmer) were to produce a pound of Interleukin 6 in his tobacco plants, the crop would be worth $16.5 billion at today's prices; that's at the going rate of $905 per 25 millionths of a gram. I'm not sure how many acres it would take to grow out a pound of Interleukin, but probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 or 20. Who needs the tobacco settlement at those prices? What a farmer needs is a really good security system, something even better than a farm dog.

We can be proud here in Virginia that some of our researchers are currently at work on this tobacco thing. A Virginia Tech professor is working to produce Alpha I Antitrypsin, a drug that can prevent emphysema, in tobacco. I assume you catch the irony there: a plant grown to prevent a respiratory disease.

So far the pharmaceutical thing isn't a commercial reality; researchers are still working out some of the fine points of the genetics. Apparently, it's the shape of the molecule that determines its efficacy, and researchers are of a divided opinion about whether the Alpha I Antitrypsin from tobacco will fold into the same shape as the human one. I'm not a geneticist, and I barely understand what I just wrote, but what it all could mean soon is that our old embattled friend, the tobacco plant, won't fade from existence. Instead, it may well point the way to phenomenal advances in health care, which wouldn't hurt the agricultural economy any, either.

But there's something tricky about the economics. The traditional tobacco states may or may not be the ones to raise tobacco for pharmaceutical purposes. Because you can raise this kind of tobacco in greenhouses, or in Korea for that matter, it won't necessarily remain a sunbelt crop. We can only hope Virginia researchers and Virginia farmers hold on to the crop long enough for it to make the transition from hated weed to beloved pharmaceutical.

The beleaguered tobacco plant could lead the way into a Golden Age of Agriculture, maybe even the Golden Age of Commerce, in the 21st century. When we see Monsanto or American Home Products at opening day of the tobacco market, I guess we'll know that time has arrived. I just hope that when that day comes, there's a tobacco farm or two left here in Virginia.

Elaine Lidholm is director of the Office of Communication and Media Relations, Va. Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.
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