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Scientists Search for Healthy Uses for Tobacco

Tobacco has been the major cash crop in the southern state of Maryland for 400 years. But with growing concerns about the health risks of smoking, the state is paying farmers to switch to other crops. However, none is as profitable per hectare as tobacco. So researchers at the University of Maryland are looking for alternative uses for the crop, which could end up helping society and tobacco farmers.

There are a lot of bad things associated with tobacco use: lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease. But at the University of Maryland in College Park, a team of researchers is focusing on the plant's good side -- its nutritional benefits. "Yes," insists agronomist Bob Kratochvil, "believe it or not, tobacco does have a lot of very good properties."

Professor Kratochvil runs the University's research farm, where they're growing tobacco, a plant he says has enormous potential for medicine, cosmetics, and energy. And, he points out, scientists hope they can even tease food out of the inedible plant. "It's got excellent quality proteins - human food proteins," he explains. "They're tasteless, odorless, the same quality as you have in soybeans or with milk. One of the potential benefits is that, supposedly, it will not cause allergies, as some folks have allergies to milk, (they're) lactose intolerant. Wheat is another crop; there is some protein allergy problem that some folks have. It's thought the tobacco protein [could] be something in special diets."

While tobacco leaves contain many proteins, finding the ones of value is the challenge for researchers like Martin Lo. Using a device called a screw press, he processes the research farm's harvest, extracting protein from the plants and analyzing it. "The small chopped-up tobacco leaves will be sent through this … screw press, and then we press the juice out of it, leaving the residual as the sludge."

From that juice, Professor Lo extracts protein crystals. He has identified two proteins so far. Both contain all 21 amino acids essential for human health. Because our bodies can't synthesize these amino acids, we have to get them from our food. Tobacco proteins could be an inexpensive, easy nutritional additive.

Professor Lo also sees the possibility of one day using tobacco proteins in medicines. He is studying several amino acids from the peptide segment of the protein. "[I want] to see if any of the protein segments actually match the therapeutic protein that might be of value to the pharmaceutical industry, to replace those proteins from animal origin. Those are considered more risky because there might be some disease that can be transmitted through animal protein." He explains that extracts from plants are much safer.

Another goal of the tobacco researchers is to eventually replace some petroleum-based products with plant-based ones. Remember the sludge left in the screw press? As bio-tech entrepreneur Neil Belson, another member of the University of Maryland tobacco team, points out, "tobacco produces an enormous amount of leaf matter that's left over after you get the proteins out, and it's from this material left over that we envision looking for petroleum substitutes."

But first, the University team must generate more tobacco protein. Since the project began three years ago, Martin Lo has produced only a small amount of his two proteins. He says he hopes that by the end of next year, the researchers will have perfected the process of tobacco protein extraction. Then, they will seek investors to help build facilities where the proteins can be produced in large amounts.

The ultimate goal, according to project advisor Gary Hodge, is to help tobacco farmers in the state of Maryland. "If we can [identify] a way for them to continue growing tobacco for beneficial purposes," he explains, "then we can begin in Maryland to see the transition of a smoking tobacco-based ag[ricultural] economy to one that produces benefits for society, and maybe that will be picked up in the other tobacco growing states, and we can begin to see something very positive come out of this 400-year legacy of smoking tobacco production."

Since 2000, when the state began paying farmers to stop growing tobacco, many have turned to other agricultural commodities. Some have planted vineyards, others are growing corn or soybeans, but no single crop has proven as lucrative as tobacco. The work being done at the University of Maryland could make tobacco farming a profitable, and respectable, business again.