It seems like it was just yesterday where every movie hero was seen with a cigarette dangling between his lips. James Bond, hanging out in quality casinos and generally being cool, stopped to light a cigarette before dropping a stinging one-liner. It was just the way things were back then.
Of course, it wasn’t long before tobacco quickly became labelled as the most deadly plant on Earth. Roughly seven million people a year die as a direct result of smoking, which is more than enough for the plant to be rightly stigmatised as a killer. Smoking is also illegal almost everywhere these days, and for very good reason. But as the saying goes; don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Researchers at Cornell University are on the verge of a major breakthrough, and if they find success, tobacco could just be the plant that makes your washing cheaper than it has ever been.
A Detergent Revolution
Laundry is a part of life. It impacts everyone on some level, and can’t ever really be called an enjoyable experience. If anything, it is one of those tasks that are destined to be a permanent royal pain in the posterior. On the other hand, it could be a great deal cheaper. How? With the magic of genetic engineering and the tobacco plant of course!
In a bizarre turn of events, researchers at Cornell University were looking to give the tobacco plant a new job. As smoking has become taboo, less tobacco has been needed, resulting in some tobacco crops going to waste. The obvious answer is for the crops to be replanted, but this is an incredibly expensive and time-consuming process. Instead, researchers thought, what if the tobacco plant could simply be repurposed?
Enter the power of genetic engineering. A bacterial gene was inserted into a tobacco plant, the purpose of which was to create enzyme Cel6A. What is this enzyme with a fancy name, and why should you care? Plant enzymes, such as Cel6A, are proficient in one very important aspect; they break down cellulose. In a plant it would be plant cell outer walls. But, thinking outside the box, researchers realised that this could apply on a much larger scale. Cel6A could do as good a job in helping breaking down other, larger compounds. Such as stains, for example.
The research has come along well, and scientists at Cornell University have gone as far as to call the project remarkable. In many cases scientific study can be slow, tedious, and require months, or even years of tests. But this is one of those rare cases where enormous success has been seen almost immediately.
It has been established that the tobacco plant responded exceptionally well to the introduction of the bacteria, producing the desired enzyme on a larger than expected scale. But this was achieved only in a lab, with outdoor environments yet to be tested. It would be grown large scale in fields after all, so the genetically engineered plant needed to be capable of surviving harsh outdoor conditions.
So, with lab results encouraging, an outdoor crop of the plant was put through harsher environmental conditions. Astonishingly, the genetically engineered plant not only survived outdoors, it thrived.
What Does It Mean?
As it stands, detergent companies create Cel6A via microbial bioreactors. The process is expensive and enormously time consuming, requiring giant spinning vats that are in need of constant finicky maintenance. It is not uncommon for an entire vat of this method to fail, simply because the environment was not 100% sterile. It need not be said that sterilising environments is no small task, and the biggest contributor to the high cost of modern detergents.
Now imagine replacing this entire nightmarish process with crops of genetically engineered tobacco plants, that require a quarter of the overall time and effort, and the benefits become clear. Though, there are a few issues with the new system that cannot be ignored. As Jennifer Schmidt, Ph.D. candidate at Cornell pointed out, there are always going to be some downsides.
The Future Is Now
Since the plants are genetically modified, special precautions must be taken. The altered plants cannot be allowed to reproduce and pass on the genetic changes, which could result in many unforeseen consequences. So each crop must be entirely disposed of before reproduction occurs, which is no small task. Though the chances of any genes being passed on are insignificant, if not impossible, no risks can be allowed when working with organic life.
Still, the benefits are enormous, and the research suggests that mass production of the altered tobacco plant is almost inevitable. But some work still needs to be done. Schmidt has said that she still needs to standardise the genetic process, and ensure that results are reliable and consistent. After this has been done, tobacco will be the new friend of those who do laundry. Namely, all of us!