While international smoking trends continue to drive up demand for
South Carolina's tobacco, researchers are studying alternative uses
for the plant.
"It's a plant that produces a fair amount of soluble protein in its
biomass," explains Bruce Fornum,
Ph.D., of Clemson University's Pee Dee Research and Education
Center, "So there's the opportunity to genetically modify that
tobacco to produce other proteins that might be useful - possibly as
an industrial protein or as a pharmaceutical protein. That would give
tobacco farmers another avenue.
"We've tested materials here at the station and have conducted
several on-farm tests in South Carolina. Tobacco has some real
advantages. Along with the protein, it's self-pollinating so you
don't have problems like airborne pollen."
Several colleges with ag schools are conducting experiments to both
improve the tobacco plant and identify alternative uses. Clemson,
North Carolina State, the University of Georgia and the University of
Central Florida are just some of the institutions in tobacco country
that have on-going programs and projects.
Meanwhile, in California, researchers at Stanford University are
growing and testing in injectable cancer vaccine in genetically
In the private sector; researchers and bioengineering entrepreneurs
have already begun to use tobacco plants as hosts for processes that
may produce new antibiotics, vaccines, cancer treatments, blood
substitutes, biodegradable plastics and industrial enzymes and
Others are exploring the possibility of growing genetically
engineered tobacco plants near munitions dumps to decontaminate the
While tobacco grown for such purposes doesn't sell, per pound, for as
much as that sold for cigarettes, it has a much shorter growing cycle
and it's not as labor intensive as flue-cured tobacco. Also, an acre
of land can grow 100,000 biotech tobacco plants, but only 6,000
plants for traditional use.
One cigarette company that's looking seriously at pharmaceutical uses
of tobacco is J.J. Reynolds. They've created a subsidiary, Targacept,
to compete with Eli Lily and Abbot Laboratories in developing
nicotine-based drugs to treat Alzheimer's.
However the leaf is utilized, Galloway believes tobacco farming is
going to be around for a long time. "The next generation or two,
there could be some drastic changes," he says, "but right now, I
think we'll be growing tobacco for a long time.'
"It's a commodity that we'll see grown in the Carolinas for quite
some time," agrees Fornum. "We have excellent farmers in "South
Carolina. That's one reason I think there's a bright future."
David Branham, S.C. Farm Bureau's Director of Commodity of Commodity
Relations, also thinks that tobacco has a future in South Carolina.
"Farm Bureau does not promote the use of tobacco products, especially
among young people, but as long as tobacco is a legal crop and as
long as people can obtain it legally, our farmers will continue to
Growing Tobacco to Fight Diabetes group of biomedical scientists from
the University of Central Florida have established that insulin
capsules produced from can cure diabetes in
mice. Dr. Henry Daniell and his molecular biology team isolated
freeze-dried plant cells from tobacco plants that were modified
genetically with insulin genes. The isolated cells were then put into
a powdered form and administered to five-week-old diabetic mice.
After an eight-week treatment, the glucose levels in both the blood
and urine were at normal levels. In addition, the beta cells began
producing optimum levels of insulin. Five or ten years from now,
tobacco farmers could wind up in the pharmaceutical industry.