Local News

NCSU Receives $17 Million Grant To Study Tobacco Genome

Posted December 18, 2002 11:05 a.m. EST

— Tobacco is a multi-billion dollar industry in North Carolina. Of the state's 100 counties, 82 produce tobacco. Wake County produces more than 10 million pounds each year.

With tobacco still under attack in many circles, including the courts, scientists are looking for new uses for the state's top crop. A new grant could breathe new life into tobacco farms.

Having picked up one of the largest grants ever, North Carolina State University will begin to map the genome, or genetic road map, of the tobacco plant. Much of the $17 million grant will be spent in a lab on Centennial Campus.

The research could have a major and lasting impact on the golden leaf and companies, like Phillip Morris, which are sponsoring the research.

"One of the major reasons for them to fund it, of course, is gene discovery that might relate to less risky tobacco products," said Charles Opperman, a researcher at N.C. State University.

Once scientists learn their way around the plant's genetics, it opens the doors for a host of other ideas.

"In the short term, gene discovery for things like resistance to pests and a biotic drought resistance and things like that," Opperman said.

In the long term, it means using the tobacco plant as a factory to make new human drugs, chemicals, and new or better materials.

"Downstream, this data will be made publicly available and we hope that other researchers will take this data and then use it to answer very specific questions," said Steve Lommel, a researcher at N.C. State University.

The project will take more than four years, but it will probably take many more years before it directly aids tobacco farmers.

"It's out there on the horizon. They welcome it, but as far as individual farmers being excited about it, I don't think it's something they talk about every day," said Graham Boyd, of the North Carolina Tobacco Growers Association.

The research will help other crops as well. Tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and eggplants are all in the same family as tobacco.