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Thinking Outside the Cigarette

June 29, 2016 |

By Chris Trlica

The meteoric rise of genetic engineering technology, combined with tobacco’s relatively easy cultivation and propensity to flower, has launched tobacco into the spotlight as one of the most common plants for engineers to study and manipulate.
Thanks to researchers, some tobacco plants can glow, others can have their flowering started or stopped with laser light, and some plants can even produce chemicals far afield from nicotine. These new uses bring hope to tobacco growers with established fields and growing practices who hope to continue producing tobacco well into the future—even as cigarette usage continues to decline.
As growers take time off from the field to ready their business for the spring, TFQ revisits four of the reasons growers may be producing their crop in years to come.

Flu Vaccines
The conventional design process for flu vaccines is fraught with many questions: Which influenza strains are most likely to hybridize? Which are most likely to spread and infect many people? How many doses will we need this flu season? These uncertainties are compounded by the time it takes to produce the vaccine. The standard flu vaccine manufacturing process involves injecting bits of the flu into chicken eggs. With this method, it may take more than six months to produce a finished dose of vaccine.
A quicker, more efficient method of flu vaccine production would be a global health breakthrough. Enter tobacco. Biotech company Medicago has found a way to inject flu particles into tobacco plants and hijack the plant’s cellular machinery, causing the tobacco plant to replicate those injected flu particles. Instead of six months to produce a vaccine, the tobacco plants can manage the feat in less than one.
The Medicago vaccines are in the early stages of the long road of Food and Drug Administration approval—and may not meet final approval until the end of the
decade. But initial results are promising, and if all goes well, the heart of world flu vaccine production may emerge alongside the heart of American flue-cured production.

Squalene
The demand for squalene, a molecule produced in small amounts by all plants and animals, has increased dramatically in recent years because of its usefulness in several industries. As a natural moisturizer, it is often used as an ingredient in cosmetics and personal health products. It’s also often added to vaccines to maximize the immune system’s response to the vaccine. And there are numerous claims of assorted health benefits attributed to squalene, from antioxidant properties to fighting cancer.
While squalene is typically just a trace constituent in animal and plant tissues, it is particularly concentrated in shark livers—squalene gives sharks their buoyancy. As sharks began to be hunted as a valuable squalene source, ecologists began to worry about overfishing. As apex predators, sharks maintain the balance of ocean life. Removing too many of them could send the whole ocean into a tailspin. To keep sharks in the ocean where they belong, researchers looked for cheaper,
easier-to-produce sources.
Thanks to U.S. growers’ widespread expertise, equipment and infrastructure, tobacco was an obvious choice. Today, a company called SynShark is partnering with North Carolina growers to test the viability of squalene production
using genetically modified tobacco. With year one of field trials drawing to a close, scientists are that much
closer to determining which
tobacco variety will yield the most vigorous and abundant
squalene-packed growth.

Electronic Cigarettes
By now, anybody familiar with the tobacco product industry is aware that electronic cigarettes, referred to as
e-cigarettes, e-cigs, vapor products and electronic nicotine delivery
systems, are battery-powered devices that heat up a nicotine cartridge just enough to vaporize the drug without actually burning anything. Because the user is inhaling a relatively pure vapor of nicotine rather than the infamously damaging smoke of a traditional cigarette, the perception exists that using vapor products is markedly less harmful than smoking combustible cigarettes.
Vapor products haven’t been around for long, and little is known about their health effects. Still, many manufacturers tout them as the ultimate tobacco harm reduction tool. While rigorous studies are lacking, several small-scale studies seem to support that, while not safe, vapor products may be less damaging. Meanwhile, smokers are quickly turning into
“vapers” in the U.S. and abroad.
The effects of vapor products on tobacco growers are difficult to predict. Because manufacturers still await substantial regulation, ingredients aren’t always listed and precise information about vapor product makeup isn’t clear. Depending on regulations that emerge, tobacco growers could stand to benefit from the rise of vapor products. But if vapers replace cigarette smokers at high rates, especially in strong overseas markets, there could be negative effects for tobacco growers.

Fuel
It’s a sign found posted on gas pumps across the United States: “May contain up to 10 percent ethanol.”
Ethanol can be used as a fuel all on its own, but, in part because the federal government has subsidized ethanol production for years, the fuel has been integrated into the market in a form blended with gasoline.
Ethanol can be produced from any source of sugar, but corn is the conventional go-to sugar source.
Desirable not only because of its high sugar content, corn is also inexpensive to grow and is produced efficiently by knowledgeable growers throughout the United States. The same set of traits that makes corn a good vegetable source of ethanol also applies to tobacco. Tobacco is a high-sugar plant that easily can be converted into ethanol by basic fermentation and
distillation techniques.
Biofuel industry members are now investigating tobacco on a large, but still experimental, scale to help meet increasing demand for ethanol. Tyton BioEnergy Systems, a Raeford, North Carolina, facility turning to tobacco for ethanol production, is currently partnering with North Carolina State University experts to define ideal growing practices for Tyton’s proprietary tobacco. Field trials are still being conducted, but the industry is already experiencing positive results and high hopes for tobacco growers with established growing practices.
For tobacco growers, there are only upsides to the biofuel industry’s growing interest in tobacco. Any increased demand would be strictly adding to, versus competing with, production for conventional tobacco companies. And tobacco production for fuels involves many of the same methods and equipment growers are used to.

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