The genetic sequence of some of the most medically beneficial and infamously criminal plants, from chamomile to Cannabis, are being mapped out by Canadian researchers in the PhyoMetaSyn project.

Scientist from several Canadian universities teamed up to crack the genetic code of 75 plants, chosen for their importance to humanity. The codes are being made freely available to the world here: Plants of Interest

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"We are completing the analysis of the genetic codes for nearly 75 plant species and are making them accessible online as they become available with the hopes of having the entire set in our web portal by the end of February 2012. Currently more than half of the 75 species are available on our website," said project co-leader Peter Facchini of the University of Calgary in a press release.

"An interesting question is, who actually owns this genetic information?" said Facchini. "We're releasing it publicly because we feel it belongs to everyone. We discovered it, but we didn't invent it."

The genetic discoveries could be useful to the pharmaceutical, natural health product, food and chemical industries. With the genetic sequence mapped out, scientists can begin identifying specific genes functions. Once they know a gene's function, they can put that gene into yeast cells. The transgenic yeast then produce the desired chemical faster and cheaper than the plants.

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"Genomic information of that nature and scale is a treasure trove for synthetic biologists," said PhytoMetaSyn co-leader Vincent Martin, of Concordia University. "It provides access to many genes or parts that can be used to produce molecules on an industrial scale."

For example, the discovery of the genes that allow the opium poppy to make both codeine and morphine helped pharmaceutical manufacturers make effective painkillers. Unraveling the poppy's puzzle also suggested ways to create plants that will only produce the more-valuable codeine and not morphine, the active and addictive ingredient in opium used to make heroin.

Some of the other plants being studied include:

  • German chamomile – used to make calming and curative teas;

  • Hops – the bittering ingredient in beer;

  • Cannabis sativa – some varieties make rope, others are smoked as dope, also gives glaucoma patients hope;

  • Wormwood – the active ingredient in absinthe;

  • Quinine – used to treat malaria;

  • West Indian Mahogany – a beautiful hardwood, endangered in the wild;

  • Rosemary – a culinary herb; and traditional arthritis medicine;

  • Grapefruit – a traditional medicine for prostate health and erectile dysfunction.

With this wealth of genetic knowledge freely available, does it open the way for illegal drug manufacturers to run clandestine genetic engineering labs cranking out morphine from transgenic yeast?

The genetic information wouldn't be very useful to a drug dealer. They can't synthesize the drugs from the genetic info alone. Having the genetic info is only useful if you have a complex and expensive lab in which to carry out the yeast transformations and highly trained scientists to perform the procedures.

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Drug dealers have neither. Making heroin is a relatively straight-forward chemical process compared to genetic engineering. Genetic manipulation is also more expensive than just growing poppies in a lawless region of Mexico, Colombia, or Afghanistan.

The seed pod of the opium poppy (Wikimedia Commons)

The flower of the opium poppy (WIkimedia Commons)

Cannabis leaf (Wikimedia Commons)