(NaturalNews) Splicing and dicing natural plant compounds and patenting them for profit may be a thing of the past for drug companies, at least in terms of them having to do it manually in a laboratory. It might seem like something out of a science fiction movie, but a team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has actually developed a way to genetically engineer plants that are programmed to create pharmaceutical drugs instead of their natural healing compounds.
You read that right. Sarah O’Connor and her colleagues from MIT added bacterial genes to periwinkle plants that altered their natural alkaloid production system, causing them to accept external chemical additions. Chemists then added halogens like chlorine and bromine to the plants’ biosynthetic mechanisms, which altered the composition of the final alkaloids. So instead of producing their natural alkaloids, the altered periwinkles literally started producing synthetic pharmaceutical drug versions of those alkaloids instead.
The process is similar to the type of genetic engineering that takes place with food crops, except this process goes a step further. Dubbed “metabolic engineering”, the process of altering the actual molecular output of plants shapes the very compounds they produce. And by manipulating these expressions, scientists can induce plants to grow a variety of different synthetic compounds that can be patented by drug companies.
The work is highly disturbing because periwinkles and other plants already produce natural, safe compounds that serve a therapeutic purpose. Vinblastine, the alkaloid naturally produced by periwinkles that was manipulated as part of the study, is already effective at treating cancer, for instance.