Tobacco is undeniably one of the most important and avoidable causes of premature death and disease in the world. The tobacco plant, Nicotiana, has probably been responsible for more deaths than any other herb. However, tobacco is more than just filler for cigarettes.
The applications of tobacco and Nicotiana are wider than we conventionally think, and they represent important tools for present and future developments of different sectors. In the last decade, tobacco research led to significant advancements in plant science and biotechnology helping enlighten scientific and agronomic subjects such as genetics, phytopathology, photosynthesis, nutrition and plant growth. But research with tobacco plants has already given an important contribution far beyond the frontiers of agricultural science.
Tobacco is currently used in bio-engineering pharmaceutical labs as a manufacturing platform for the production of a wide range of drugs and therapeutic agents. “Plant molecular farming” is all about using plants as incubators to produce proteins for pharmaceutic or industrial application, using recombinant DNA technologies.
The targets of these therapeutics are, for instance, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis, Ebola, cancer and HIV/AIDS. Research is actually still ongoing to extend the exploitation of tobacco as a “biologic incubator” for vaccine production.
The development of a process that uses tobacco leaves to produce influenza vaccines would significantly speed up vaccine manufacturing, whilst allowing patients to dispose of a strain-specific vaccines in about one month.
At the same time, Nicotiana has become particularly interesting for the “green energy” sector. One of the most ambitious projects aims to convert tobacco seeds into sustainable energy and materials. Tobacco varieties can be selected, bred or genetically modified to increase the amount of oil in the seeds, which can be then transformed and employed as a biofuel. A tobacco-powered plane is foreseen to take off soon from Cape Town to land in Johannesburg.
South African Airways wish tobacco-powered planes will represent 50% of its fleet by 2023 (which would imply a consumption of about 500 million litres of biofuel per year). This would be a major progress for reducing the impact on the environment, since the tobacco-based biofuel should lead to a cut of 75 % in CO2 emissions compared with fossil fuels. Multiple biotech laboratories and companies are currently working on genetically-engineered tobacco plants in order to boost their content of oil and sugar, therefore improving ethanol and biodiesel production.
Despite its unknown potential, Nicotiana tabacum is recognised by agronomists and chemists as a uniquely advantageous source of proteins. In other words, tobacco may be easily processed in order to extract protein-enriched fractions that can be exploited as livestock food, pesticides, human dietary compliments and even for cosmetic applications.
It has been calculated that tobacco plants grown in densely spaced environments may generate about four times as much protein per acre as soybeans or corn, thereby representing an interesting and highly rentable resource for different industrial sectors.
Phytoremediation, a technological approach of exploiting living plants to clean up soil, air, and water contaminated with hazardous chemicals, has become a standard technique for remediation of polluted ecosystems. A wide array of plants, from bamboo to brassicas, are currently used for the removal of heavy metals (such as lead or cadmium) or organic pollutants (oils and pesticides) in a cost-effective way.
Even in this field, tobacco plays a pivotal role: many researchers of the Institute of Biotechnology of the University of Cambridge are working on ‘transgenic’ tobacco plants which are able to rid soil of explosive compounds, known to be “refractory” pollutants, which previously were hard to remove.
The target of such plants are the dangerous traces of nitrogen-based explosives, such as pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) and glycerol trinitrate (GTN), left behind by military and industrial activity.
Knowing all its potential applications, touching many aspects of our lives, tobacco should be greeted with much more positivity. “Tobacco can both nurture and kill, it just depends on the choice that we make”.
 Dirisala, V.R., Nair, R.R., Srirama, K. et al. Acta Physiol Plant (2017) 39: 18. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11738-016-2315-3
 Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma; https://www.mt-pharma.co.jp/e/ir/annual/pdf/CR_2017_en.pdf
 K.H. Ginzel, Submission To The World Health Organization For The Framework Convention On Tobacco Control (1998)
 Kumar S (2013) Phytoremediation of Explosives using Transgenic Plants. J Phylogenetics Evol Biol S4:001. doi:10.4172/2157-7463.S4-001