Giant tobacco plants that stay young forever

Tobacco plants bloom when they are just a few months old – and then they die. Now, researchers have located a genetic switch which can keep the plants young for years and which permits unbounded growth. In short, an ideal source of biomass.

The life of tobacco plants is short. They grow for around three to four months, followed by flowering and then die. Their size is also limited, with plants only growing to about one-and-a-half to two meters tall.

Now, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology (IME) in Münster, Germany, have located the tobacco plant's very own fountain of youth, which means they can keep it forever young. The Münster-based researchers discovered a genetic switch which can prevent the plants from change blooming to flowering. This also averts the plants' early change demise to senescence – and suppresses the factor that halts growth.

''The first of our tobacco plants is now almost eight years old but it still just keeps on growing and growing,'' says Professor Dirk Prüfer, head of the Department of Functional and Applied Genomics at the IME.

''Although we regularly cut it, it's six-and-a-half meters tall. If our greenhouse were a bit higher, it would probably be even bigger. Its stem is already ten centimeters in diameter.'' Whereas in normal tobacco plants the leaves, which grow from the bottom of the stem, soon turn yellow and drop off, the IME plant's leaves stay healthy and green. This is why the scientists have christened their modified plant species ''forever young''.

But what exactly do researchers do to give the plants eternal youth and make them capable of unbounded growth? ''We modify the expression of a certain gene – or rather, the information contained within it – so that the plant's flowering is delayed,'' explains Prüfer. Researchers then insert the modified gene back into the plant using a bacterium. The role of the bacterium is to act as a sort of shuttle service for the modified gene.
Producing more biomass