Genetic modifications to a plant that makes artemisinin, a key compound used in malaria drugs, more than tripled the amount of the ingredient naturally produced in leaves.
Previous attempts to genetically engineer Artemisia annua to increase the yield of artemisinin had failed. So Kexuan Tang, a plant scientist at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and colleagues determined A. annua’s entire genetic instruction book and identified three genes crucial to artemisinin production. Genetic modifications to increase the activity of these genes boosted the artemisinin level in leaves from 0.1–1 percent of their dry weight to 3.2 percent, the researchers report April 24 in Molecular Plant.
Malaria kills about 440,000 people worldwide every year. The scientists hope to save lives by increasing and stabilizing the global supply of artemisinin, which has been in shortage due to unstable supply, Tang says.