If you think plant science has nothing to do with combating the COVID-19 pandemic, think again.
Biologists at the University of Victoria are using a close relative of the tobacco plant to help develop potential antibody tests.
These tests, which can determine if a person has already had COVID-19, will be a key tool to determine how much of the population has been infected. They require a spike protein that can produce virus proteins similar to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Aiming to meet the global demand for these tests, researchers are genetically engineering the tobacco relative, Nicotiana benthamiana, to grow a spike protein.
Harley Gordon, a PhD student at the University of Victoria, said back in March the university was gradually shutting down operations when the lab he worked in realized it could contribute valuable research.
"We genetically engineer tobacco to make protein like the spike protein on the COVID-19 virus — and with that protein you can go through and you can use it to start developing antibody tests," he said.
Bacteria is injected into the soft, supple leaves of the plant, Gordon said. That bacteria then injects itself into cells that exist only within the leaf of the plant, and those cells become a kind of "mini factory" that produces proteins that the team can then purify.
The team is currently at the manufacturing stage of the process and will work with manufacturing partners to determine whether the plant-produced protein is a viable option for serology tests.
"Testing was quite restricted at the start of the pandemic, so tracking how many people originally had it is very key," said Gordon.
"It has been pretty quick. Obviously, we've had to retool a little bit and think of what we do because this is outside our element."