Looking into nicotine – a tobacco-related poison or a food-derived health aid?

Despite increasing interest in synthetic nicotine, most nicotine still comes from tobacco. But could other plants also be a commercially viable source of the substance?

Nicotine is a product of an evolutionary advantage, so it isn’t surprising that the compound has popped up in plants beyond tobacco. Nature is filled with cases of convergent evolution, times when unrelated plants and animals develop similar traits to meet an evolutionary need.

Yet where nicotine occurs, it is generally recorded in only minuscule amounts. This doesn’t stop headlines being generated off of each novel discovery. But the concentration of 180 ng/g of nicotine that can be found outside tobacco in vegetables such as tomatoes and aubergines is dwarfed by the 20 mg/g found in the tobacco plant.

The reason may lie in the varying purposes that nicotine serves in different plants.

Tobacco and other Solanaceae plants, or nightshades, originally developed nicotine primarily as a natural pesticide. The same mild stimulus that it provides to humans can, when scaled to the level of an insect, lead to overwhelming and toxic brain activity – and not much is needed to achieve this.

But in the case of tobacco, research suggests that the plant developed larger amounts of nicotine as a means of also deterring larger vertebrate animals, like rabbits, in addition to insects.

 

Is it possible nicotine could be beneficial?

 

This higher concentration is one reason that tobacco dominates nicotine production. Given its ubiquity and now the arrival of synthetic nicotine as well, there isn’t a real commercial need for nicotine to be sourced from other channels.

Obtaining enough of the substance from other plants would require a combination of selective breeding and/or technological innovation, and would likely not be worth the expense.

Still, research into the proliferation of nicotine in non-traditional plants benefits our knowledge of how nicotine is synthesised, which can aid both production in the lab and cultivation in the fields.

And this research may also be helpful in understanding the beneficial effects of nicotine. While the linkage of smoking to numerous ailments is well-known, research into the health effects of nicotine itself is more limited. But there are some possible positives.

For example, smokers have been observed to have a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease by 30% to 40%, which may derive from nicotine exposure. In one study, dietary nicotine consumption from aubergines was sufficient to generate an effect.

Non-tobacco sources of nicotine, then, could conceivably be of interest in developing novel uses for the substance – even if only in research. But the trace amounts of nicotine found in those plants is unlikely to become a new industrial source.

 Clayton Hale ECigIntelligence contributing writer

Photo: Robert Gareth

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