Plants as mRNA Factories: A New Frontier in Edible Vaccines


Researchers at the University of California-Riverside (UCR) are exploring ways to transform edible plants, like spinach and lettuce, into factories for mRNA vaccines. This innovative endeavor seeks to overcome the critical challenge of maintaining vaccine stability during storage and transport, which currently requires low temperatures. If successful, these plant-based vaccines could be stored at room temperature, facilitating easier widespread distribution.

The study aims to fulfill three primary objectives:

  1. Deliver DNA containing mRNA vaccines into plant cells where replication occurs.
  2. Ensure the plants can produce mRNA levels matching traditional shots.
  3. Determine the appropriate dosage for effective vaccination.

Juan Pablo Giraldo, PhD, an associate professor in UCR’s botany and plant sciences department, is spearheading this research with a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Collaborating with scientists from UC San Diego and Carnegie Mellon University, Giraldo envisions a future where people can grow their own vaccine-producing plants at home.

Chloroplasts, the tiny, solar-powered factories within plant cells, play a crucial role in this process. These structures are responsible for producing sugar and other molecules necessary for plant growth. Giraldo’s research has shown that chloroplasts can express foreign genes. This is accomplished by incorporating genetic material into plant cells using protective casings.

Nicole Steinmetz, PhD, a nanoengineering professor at UC San Diego, has partnered with Giraldo to use engineered nanotechnologies for gene delivery. They aim to utilize naturally occurring nanoparticles, such as plant viruses, to transport genetic material to chloroplasts. These nanoparticles are engineered to target chloroplasts specifically and are rendered non-infectious to plants.

This approach is not only groundbreaking for vaccine production but also for other high-value applications. Giraldo’s team is also exploring the use of nanomaterials to deliver nitrogen directly to chloroplasts, optimizing plant growth where it is most needed. This secondary project has received a substantial $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Consider this comparison of traditional vs. plant-based mRNA vaccine methods:

Attribute Traditional mRNA Vaccines Plant-Based mRNA Vaccines
Storage Requirements Requires cold storage Potential for room temperature storage
Production Cost High due to pharmaceutical facilities Lower, using natural plant growth
Dosage Form Injectable forms Potentially edible, direct consumption
Scalability Limited to production facilities High, can be grown in fields or gardens
Transport Stability Requires careful temperature control More stable at varying temperatures

These plant-based vaccines could offer significant benefits over traditional methods. They reduce the need for cold storage, potentially lowering distribution costs and making vaccines more accessible globally. Additionally, the ability to grow vaccine-producing plants in home gardens or on farms highlights the innovative potential of using plants for pharmaceutical applications.

The environmental benefits also extend beyond vaccine production. By optimizing nitrogen delivery using nanotechnology, this approach may reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers, thereby decreasing groundwater contamination and nitrous oxide emissions. This aligns with broader public health goals and sustainable agricultural practices.

This ongoing research at UCR showcases the exciting future of mRNA technology, combining genetic engineering, plant biology, and nanotechnology to revolutionize vaccines and beyond.

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