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Hydroponically Grown Vaccines: How Hydroponic Tobacco Is Changing Medicine

Hydroponic tobacco could be the future of vaccine production. Hydroponic tobacco could be the future of vaccine production.


Hydroponics, genetic engineering, and vaccines: these three words might seem to have little in common. However, if you've ever asked yourself how a vaccine is made, you'd be surprised to learn that they are being used together to alter medical science.

It's not common knowledge, but microbiologists have been using chicken eggs to culture antigens, the active ingredient in vaccines, since the 1930s. The majority of life-saving vaccines given in childhood – those for measles, mumps and rubella, and for influenza, yellow fever, and rabies – all began life inside a chicken embryo before being purified and made into injections.

This method of producing antibodies has been long due for a makeover, since working with eggs is both tedious and expensive. Each chicken embryo must be cracked, injected with a serum, and left to incubate for a period of days before being harvested.

Using hydroponically grown tobacco, it’s possible to produce vaccines for influenza, swine flu, and bird flu quickly and at half the normal cost.

It is also inefficient: some vaccines such as the influenza shot require one egg and yield only two doses. As demands soar for immunizers around the world, producing enough vaccine for hundreds of millions of people with hundreds of millions of eggs can be an impossible task.

Enter hydroponics. Within ten years the methodology around vaccines could change thanks to principle based on hydroponic technology.

Researchers in the United States working for the Fraunhofer Center, Medicago, and Inserogen are looking to an odd contender, the tobacco plant, as a replacement for traditionally egg-based vaccines. Though it may seem random, tobacco can synthesize the complex proteins needed for vaccine production and host infectious viruses without posing any risk of transmission to humans.

To make a vaccine, scientists cultivate tobacco plants hydroponically in mineral wool for four weeks inside an automated indoor facility. Each step of the growing cycle, from placing seeds into growing mediums to harvesting the plants for extraction, is carried out entirely by robots. When the plants are mature enough to receive a virus, they are picked up in trays, turned upside down and dunked into a bath rife with bacteria. These bacteria have been genetically modified to carry a protein code specific to the vaccine being manufactured.

Within seconds, a vacuum is activated to draw oxygen out of the water and submerged plants, and then is quickly shut off. When the vacuum is deactivated, the open pores of the plant become turgid with the bacteria-laced water. No more than a week later, each tobacco leaf will be will crushed into small pieces, homogenized and processed to produce the clear liquid antigen needed for a vaccine.

Using hydroponically grown tobacco, it’s possible to produce vaccines for influenza, swine flu, and bird flu quickly and at half the normal cost. Tobacco plants can produce anywhere between 30 to 100 doses per plant at a cost of $36 million for 50 million doses, which is a staggering difference compared to egg-based methods priced at around $400 million for the same numbers of doses.

We already know how hydroponic agriculture offers an alternative to conventional farming that is beneficial for the earth. Now it seems that hydroponics are stepping up to help humanity once again.

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How about Hydroponic Tobacco Road?
Last modified on Saturday, 24 August 2013 19:17

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