Today, if you are exposed to nerve gas — like the sarin used in the notorious 1995 Tokyo subway attacks — the best that anyone can do for you is administer a cocktail of drugs that may keep your heart beating long enough for the gas to wear off on its own. The drugs themselves are dangerous, and they do not stop any of the damage that nerve gas causes. But researchers at Mor Lab at ASU are working to change all that using genetically engineered plants and a blender that would look more at home at a Jamba Juice than in a laboratory.

It turns out that our bodies already possess an enzyme that not only deactivates the chemicals in nerve gas but also rips them apart at the molecular level. The problem is that we naturally produce this chemical, butyrylcholinesterase (BchE), at such low levels that it cannot help us in the event of a nerve gas attack. BchE is a complex molecule and nearly impossible to isolate or synthesize in any quantity. That is why researchers at Mor Lab are teaching tobacco plants how to grow the chemical for us. By splicing the ability to create BchE into plants, they can grow entire fields of this life-saving enzyme. Because they are plants, harvesting is easy; they just need to blend the whole plant and extract the BchE. Clearly, there is still much work to be done, but the initial results are extremely promising. Who thought tobacco could do such good?

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