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Scientists develop plant that produces potential anti-carcinogen

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A Purdue University researcher has successfully engineered plants that may not only lead to the production of anti-carcinogenic nutritional supplements, but also may be used to remove excess selenium from agricultural fields.

By introducing a gene that makes plants tolerate selenium, David Salt, professor of plant molecular physiology, has developed plants capable of building up in their tissues unusually high levels of a selenium compound. His interest in selenium stems in part from recent research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health showing that selenium can reduce the risk of developing prostate cancer by 60 percent.

"We now know how to genetically modify plants so they will make this anti-carcinogenic selenium compound," Salt said. "This research gives us the genetic means to manipulate the amount of this material that's produced in any plant."

Selenium, a mineral that occurs naturally in the soil in some parts of the world, is an essential micronutrient for animals, including humans, but is toxic to animals and most plants at high levels.

However, a few plant species have the ability to build up high levels of selenium in their tissues with no ill effects. These plants, called selenium hyper-accumulators, convert selenium taken up from the soil into a non-toxic form called methylselenocysteine, or MSC.

By inserting the gene responsible for this conversion into Arabidopsis thaliana, a model lab plant that does not tolerate selenium, Salt and his colleagues produced plants that not only thrive in a selenium-enriched environment but also amass high levels of the selenium-containing MSC in their tissues.

"We now know that this gene works," Salt said. "If you put it into another plant, it will make MSC, and we didn't know that before. So now we're in a comfortable position to say, 'okay, let's put this gene into a plant that we can use to make into a nutritional supplem
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Contact: Jennifer Cutraro
jcutraro@purdue.edu
765)-496-2050
Purdue University
3-Feb-2004


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