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Research team makes plant genome public to help fight COVID-19

Plant Nicotiana benthamiana is currently used as a bio-factory for several experimental vaccines against SARS-COV-2.

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An international team of scientists that includes the Institute of Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology (IBMCP), mixed centre of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and Valencia’s Polytechnic University (UPV), has made available to organism researchers, both public and private who so desire, the sequence of the genome of Nicotiana benthamiana, a plant used as a bio-factory of bio-medicines. The initiative, whose goal is to contribute to the fight against COVID-19, is headed by the Technological University of Queensland, and is part of the NEWCOTIANA project, funded by the European Union by way of the Framework Programme H2020, coordinated by CSIC researcher Diego Orzáez. The SARS-COV-2 virus has caused the worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918. A large number of public and private research groups are currently developing vaccines to fight the pandemic. An important problem they face is how to produce these vaccines quickly, in large amounts and at a low cost. One answer consists of using plants as bio-factories, a field also known as molecular farming. Specifically, the genes with which to produce the vaccine can be transferred quickly and temporarily to Nicotiana benthamiana plants. The bio-factory plants are grown in large amounts using simple and safe farming techniques, which would facilitate production scale. Diego Orzáez, CSIC researcher at the IBMCP and coordinator of the NEWCOTIANA project, explains that “Nicotiana benthamiana is a plant closely linked to tobacco, that has been widely used to produce a large number of bio-pharmaceutical products, such as well-known antibody mix Zmapp, used to treat Ebola. Several companies currently use them as a platform to produce experimental vaccines against COVID-19. As researchers of the NEWCOTIANA project, we modify the genes of this pant to improve its ability to produce large amounts of more efficient bio-medicines. To do so, we need to know the genome of Nicotiana benthamiana in detail. Faced with the crisis of COVID-19, the groups involved in sequencing the plant’s genome have decided to immediately share our findings with other researchers, as well as with companies that develop vaccines and diagnostic reactants against COVID-19. The NEWCOTIANA project, funded by the European Union, uses gene modification with Nicotiana benthamiana as a tool to produce useful bio-pharmaceutical products. “When we started the project two years ago, SARS-COV-2 was not on the radar; however, since the beginning of the pandemic, several project teams have started working on the production of useful bio-pharmaceutical products against the pandemic, from reactants to establish fast immunological trials, to molecules that can be used in a programme of mass vaccinations. We hope this speeds up the discovery of new bio-pharmaceutical products and, ultimately, contributes to fight against the current and future epidemics,” concludes Orzáez. For more information on the NEWCOTIANA project, visit For access to the N. benthamiana genome, visit