The Faculty of Life Sciences at Copenhagen University is one of Europe's leading environments in plant science. That reputation is now about to be further increased by the decision to invest DKK 200m (USD 36m) in a new research facility, Copenhagen Plant Science Center, writes national daily newspaper Berlingske Tidende.
The potential applications of plant science in areas like food, medicine and biotechnology are virtually limitless and with the establishment of the new center, Copenhagen University will be able to attract more of the brightest minds in plant science, faculty dean Per Holten-Andersen told Berlingske Tidende.
Two of the projects being undertaken give a flavour of what the new research center could offer in future plant science applications.
One concerns the food area, specifically a vegetable called cassava which is a widely used staple food in Africa. The problem with cassasava is that in its raw state it contains highly toxic cyanide, which makes it dangerous to consume if not prepared or cooked in the proper way. In Copenhagen a "supercassava" is being developed in collaboration with African researchers, which contains no cyanide and is significantly richer in vitamins. The new cassava species will thus have both health-protective and health-promoting characteristics, to the benefit of thousands of Africans.
The other is in the area of medicine. American scientists have found a substance in a wild carrot that has the ability to target certain types of tumour (prostate cancer, breast cancer) with great accuracy. But the substance, called thapsigargin, is toxic – it makes the tumour grow. However, attaching a special protein to the toxic molecule reverses its role and turns it into a highly selective tumour destroyer with very little in the way of side effects.
Unfortunately, the wild carrot is almost impossible to cultivate, and the toxic substance it produces is so complex that it would be colossally expensive to synthesise. So in Copenhagen, researchers are transferring the relevant biosynthetic apparatus from the carrot to a moss plant that can be used as a surrogate producer of the toxic substance in a way that is both easy to do and relatively cheap.
Senior researcher Henrik Toft Simonsen told Berlingske Tidende: "There is really great potential in this substance, especially because it targets its attack on tumour cells so accurately and because its side effect profile is so low – probably no more than ordinary paracetamol."