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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note/Poppies

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on a new technique that transforms the poppy into a remedy for malaria.


CURWOOD: Just ahead: where humans are simply an asterisk -- the world according to ants. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: Will the plant used to make heroin help fight one of the world’s most deadly diseases? A team of Australian scientists hopes so. The researchers recently engineered the opium poppy to stop producing narcotics and make a compound used to treat malaria instead.

They were able to change the plant’s nature by literally reforming its genetic character in the lab. Using a gene-silencing technique called RNA interference, the scientists selectively “turned off” the genes in the poppy plant that cause it to synthesize opiates like morphine, which is used to make heroin.

But the technique did more than strip the plant of its narcotic element. The RNA interference prompted the plant to suspend synthesis just at the stage when it produced a compound called reticuline. As it happens, an alkaloid made of reticuline molecules is the active ingredient in many herbal remedies used to treat malaria.

The scientists published their findings this month in the journal “Nature Biotechnology.” And they hope that if the morphine-free poppy proves commercially viable for farmers, it will offer a legitimate alternative to its black market cousin supplying the heroin trade. That’s this week’s Emerging Science Note, I’m Jennifer Chu.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

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[MUSIC: Kathryn Tickell “The Gathering” THE GATHERING (Park – 1997)]



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