Poppies make more than opium

Gene cluster controls production of a valuable compound

Opium poppies, such as the Tasmanian poppies pictured here, are prized for the valuable drugs they produce. Scientists have long known how the plants make opiates, such as codeine and morphine, but the molecular steps for making a nonaddictive substance called noscapine have been a mystery until now. Noscapine is a cough suppressant that is also used as an antitumor drug. A group of 10 genes carries the instructions for building enzymes Papaver somniferum poppies need to produce noscapine, Ian Graham of the University of York in England and colleagues report online May 31 in Science. Poppies with two copies of each of the noscapine-producing genes make high levels of the drug, while poppies that inherit only one copy of the genes make less noscapine. Poppies that lack the genes make none of the drug. The discovery could make it easier for drug companies to manufacture noscapine.

Opium poppies, grown commercially for the production of morphine, are also the source of noscapine, a nonaddictive compound used as a cough suppressant and antitumor agent. Researchers have found a cluster of 10 genes in the poppy that are essential to noscapine production. Photo by Carol Walker

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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