U of C opium research sheds light on plant

University of Calgary researchers recently made some new discoveries surrounding the genes of the opium poppy.

PhD student Scott Farrow and biology professor Peter Facchini have been researching the functions of opium genes to better understand their origins.

“[Farrow] started to look at those enzymes in detail and found out that [the enzymes] were not as we originally thought — that they are really specific to allow the plant to produce these opiate [compounds] — but in fact the enzymes have a much broader function in the plant so they’re involved in many related compounds from different metabolic branches,” Facchini said.

Opium poppies are the only plant found in nature that produces the necessary compounds for creating codeine, morphine and heroin. Understanding the biological pathways in these plants may allow us to manipulate these genes to produce more new compounds.

Results from the research also gives insight into the evolutionary origins of these traits.

“What’s the function of something like morphine, which is a narcotic analgesic and a cough suppressant? Plants don’t get coughs. They don’t feel pain. So why are they producing it?” Facchini said. “The value of Scott’s work is to discuss the value of evolution.”

Discovering that these enzymes actually have multiple functions suggests that the production of the painkillers is a secondary consequence that resulted from other necessary biological activities.

“Maybe the function of these genes is actually being selected because they do something else in the plant,” Facchini said. “They’re important, for example, in helping the plant to make a related alkaloid that’s produced in the roots of opium poppies called sanguinarine.”

Sanguinarine is an antimicrobial found in many plants that protects roots from bacteria and fungi in soil.

These genes were first discovered in Facchini’s lab in 2010 after former PhD student Jillian Hagel researched the genes responsible for producing morphine — a problem that has long eluded scientists.

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