A team of mainly Chinese researchers – the first author is Qian Shen and the reference author is Kexuan Tang – have just published “The Genome of Artemisia annua Provides Insight into the Evolution of Asteraceae Family and Artemisinin Biosynthesis”
The researchers declare modestly that they are reporting on a high quality genome assembly project of the A. annua. genome. But it is a 1.74-gigabase genome, very heterozygous, full of repeating sequences, and containing 63,226 protein-encoding genes, one of the largest sequenced to date.
Their work was not limited to phylogenetic and biochemical research. Based on their genomic and transcriptomic analyses, they produced transgenic lines of A. annua producing high levels of artemisinin. While “conventional” plants produce between 0.1% and 1% artemisinin (based on dry matter) in their leaves, the researchers’ best line contains 3.2%.
The researchers used glyphosate tolerance as a marker to select promising plants based on the above lines. This tolerance can of course also be used in cultivation for the production of artemisinin, which has clear agronomic advantages.
These lines are now ready for field trials to be followed by large-scale production.
Malaria is a global health problem. Although the French are normally only exposed to it during trips to countries where malaria is endemic, it’s not impossible that France could see a return of this plague.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) nearly one billion people live in high-risk areas. There were 216 million new cases in 2016, and 445,000 deaths.
Artemisinin is a component of the most recent and currently most effective antimalarial drugs. It also has potential as an anti-platyhelminth, in the treatment of bilharzia and distomatosis, as well as certain cancers by means of a derivative.
The availability of artemisinin depends on agricultural production and is not always sufficient to meet demand. The work of Kexuan Tang’s team is therefore of considerable importance.
This raises, once again, the question of the European – and particularly French – opposition to GMOs; but also that of the Chinese, Artemisia being an important element of the Chinese traditional pharmacopoeia.
Will “NGOs” and other members of the protest and opposition to progress industry be campaigning against the cultivation of these new, very particular GMOs? Will this be “Golden Rice” all over again, with the opposition to a “Trojan horse for the pro-GMO lobby” or claims that “The rationale of the fight against [insert relevant disease] is only a marketing ploy to try to make GMOs acceptable”? Will over a hundred Nobel Prize winners (131 to date), mainly in science and medicine, have to strike up the refrain of “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a crime against humanity?” once more?
Will administrative, legislative and political authorities insist on GMO labelling? Will anti-GMO opprobrium be stamped all over medicine boxes because the artemisinin was produced – shock horror! – by a more efficient transgenic plant, which is also – shock horror again! – glyphosate resistant? While science and technology today are saving thousands of lives with recombinant insulin, produced by genetically modified bacteria… And we’ll happily scoff cheeses produced from milk curdled with recombinant chymosin (not permitted in France for Protected Designation of Origin or organic cheeses)…
We don’t want to have to consider the possibility that a doctor might refuse on ideological grounds to prescribe ACT (Artemisinin Combination Therapy), consequently endangering the life of a patient. After the “better dead than GM-fed”, slogans, are we going to see “better dead than GMO-cured “? To be precise, a substance produced by a transgenic plant, but in all respects identical to that produced by a “conventional” plant.
These and other questions that may arise – for example, will Europe finance organisations that openly or clandestinely fund activist groups who destroy transgenic or supposedly transgenic Artemisia crops? – may seem over the top and somewhat premature. It’s not at all premature: science, technology and the economy are moving much faster in the rest of the world than ideology, opinions and politics in Europe. We need to leave now if we want to be on time to catch the progress train before it pulls out of the station.
The problem is not confined to Artemisia, artemisinin and malaria: the work of Kexuan Tang’s team is an example of a huge development potential that is within reach.