Grow and eat your own vaccines?

The future of vaccines may look more like eating a salad than getting a shot in the arm. UC Riverside scientists are studying whether they can turn edible plants like lettuce into mRNA vaccine factories.

Grant enables study of plants as mRNA factories

Messenger RNA or mRNA technology, used in COVID-19 vaccines, works by teaching our cells to recognize and protect us against infectious diseases. 

One of the challenges with this new technology is that it must be kept cold to maintain stability during transport and storage. If this new project is successful, plant-based mRNA vaccines — which can be eaten — could overcome this challenge with the ability to be stored at room temperature. 

The project’s goals, made possible by a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, are threefold: showing that DNA containing the mRNA vaccines can be successfully delivered into the part of plant cells where it will replicate, demonstrating the plants can produce enough mRNA to rival a traditional shot, and finally, determining the right dosage. 

“Ideally, a single plant would produce enough mRNA to vaccinate a single person,” said Juan Pablo Giraldo, an associate professor in UCR’s Department of Botany and Plant Sciences who is leading the research, done in collaboration with scientists from UC San Diego and Carnegie Mellon University. 

“We are testing this approach with spinach and lettuce and have long-term goals of people growing it in their own gardens,” Giraldo said. “Farmers could also eventually grow entire fields of it.”

Chloroplasts (magenta color) in leaves expressing a green fluorescent protein. The DNA encoding for the protein was delivered by targeted nanomaterials without mechanical aid by applying a droplet of the nano-formulation to the leaf surface. (Israel Santana/UCR)

Key to making this work are chloroplasts — small organs in plant cells that convert sunlight into energy the plant can use. “They’re tiny, solar-powered factories that produce sugar and other molecules which allow the plant to grow,” Giraldo said. “They’re also an untapped source for making desirable molecules.”

In the past, Giraldo has shown that it is possible for chloroplasts to express genes that aren’t naturally part of the plant. He and his colleagues did this by sending foreign genetic material into plant cells inside a protective casing. Determining the optimal properties of these casings for delivery into plant cells is a specialty of Giraldo’s laboratory. 

For this project Giraldo teamed up with Nicole Steinmetz, a UC San Diego professor of nanoengineering, to utilize nanotechnologies engineered by her team that will deliver genetic material to the chloroplasts. 

“Our idea is to repurpose naturally occurring nanoparticles, namely plant viruses, for gene delivery to plants,” Steinmetz said. “Some engineering goes into this to make the nanoparticles go to the chloroplasts and also to render them non-infectious toward the plants.”

Plant viruses provide naturally occurring nanoparticles that are being repurposed for gene delivery into plant cells. (Nicole Steinmetz/UCSD)

For Giraldo, the chance to develop this idea with mRNA is the culmination of a dream. “One of the reasons I started working in nanotechnology was so I could apply it to plants and create new technology solutions. Not just for food, but for high-value products as well, like pharmaceuticals,” Giraldo said. 

Giraldo is also co-leading a related project using nanomaterials to deliver nitrogen, a fertilizer, directly to chloroplasts, where plants need it most. 

Nitrogen is limited in the environment, but plants need it to grow. Most farmers apply nitrogen to the soil. As a result, roughly half of it ends up in groundwater, contaminating waterways, causing algae blooms, and interacting with other organisms. It also produces nitrous oxide, another pollutant. 

This alternative approach would get nitrogen into the chloroplasts through the leaves and control its release, a much more efficient mode of application that could help farmers and improve the environment. 

The National Science Foundation has granted Giraldo and his colleagues $1.6 million to develop this targeted nitrogen delivery technology.

“I’m very excited about all of this research,” Giraldo said. “I think it could have a huge impact on peoples’ lives.”SHARE THIS ARTICLE

New York State Bar Passes Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination Recommendation

New York State Bar Passes Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination Recommendation | 07 Nov 2020 | The New York State Bar Association on Saturday passed a resolution urging the state to consider making it mandatory for all New Yorkers to undergo COVID-19 vaccination when a vaccine becomes available, even if people object to it for “religious, philosophical or personal reasons.” The resolution, which was passed by a majority of the bar association’s 277-member House of Delegates and which speaks on behalf of the 70,000-lawyer organization, includes conditions limiting its scope. Those include that the state government should only consider making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory if voluntary vaccinations fall short of producing needed levels of population immunity; that an assessment of the health threat to various communities be made so that perhaps the mandate can be targeted; and that a mandate only be considered after there is expert consensus regarding the vaccine’s safety and efficacy…The report had recommended that it should be mandatory for all Americans to undergo COVID-19 vaccination, despite people’s objections, with the one exception being the doctor-ordered medical reason for not being vaccinated. There was no language about the mandate being limited to New York state residents, and no language saying that a public recommendation made to the government should only be for a government to “consider” employing the mandate. [*We’ll take your shot after you take ours.*]

Bill Gates Warns 30 Million People Could Die From Flu Pandemic if We Don’t Get It Together!


Hey, don’t freak out or anything, but Bill Gates thinks there is a new flu epidemic lurking just around the corner and we are woefully unprepared for it. The billionaire philanthropist warned Friday that there is a “significant probability of a large and lethal modern-day pandemic occurring in our lifetimes.”

While speaking at the Massachusetts Medical Society and the New England Journal of Medicine, Gates started ringing the alarm bells about a potential new flu that could wipe out as many as 33 million people worldwide in a matter of just six months, according to the Washington Post.

 Gates, who said he’s typically an optimist when it comes to human progress, said the world and United States in particular are falling behind in “pandemic preparedness.” If there were weapons being built that could kill 30 million people, Gates said, governments would act fast to prepare for them. With biological threats, there is no sense of urgency.

This is a problem that Gates has been harping on for some time now, raising the issue at the Munich Security Conference in 2016, the World Economic Forum in Davos last year, and in an op-ed in Business Insider after that.

He cited a simulation by Institute for Disease Modeling to show just how deadly a new flu virus could prove to be when introduced to an unprepared populace, but that is far from the only source warning of such a possibility. Oxford’s Global Priorities Project released a report in 2016 showed that a natural pandemic, along with nuclear war, are the highest risks facing civilization right now.

Joining those threats as a primary concern is a variation of the natural pandemic—a deliberately engineered pandemic, such as one that could be created in a bioterrorism attack. Advances in technologies that can be used to help prevent the spread of viruses can also be used by nefarious groups to create new threats and weaponize pathogens. CRISPR, a powerful gene editing tool that promises plenty of good, could enable such an attack by malicious actors.

“The next epidemic could originate on the computer screen of a terrorist intent on using genetic engineering to create a synthetic version of the smallpox virus … or a super contagious and deadly strain of the flu,” Gates warned in 2016.

Despite Gates’ continuous hammering home the possibility of biological threats wiping out large chunks of the world’s populations, his message has largely fallen on deaf ears from those who have the ability to actually do something about it.

Gates told the Washington Post that he’s met with Donald Trump to encourage the president to lead on the issue of global health security, only to have Trump tell him to follow up with officials at the Health and Human Services Department, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration.

Trump’s former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster took multiple meetings with Gates, but he’s been ousted and replaced with war-mongering Lorax John Bolton, who has yet to meet with Gates and likely doesn’t have much interest in what he has to say unless it involves bombing someone.

To his credit, Gates is positioning the effort that will be required to prevent a biological disaster in a way that would appeal to Bolton and other hawks in the Trump administration. “The world needs to prepare for pandemics in the same serious way it prepares for war,” the former head of Microsoft said during his speech.

While Gates said he’s willing to talk to the National Security Council to address this issue, he’s trying to push the issue on all fronts. “But, you know, I think we’ve got to push this … with the executive branch and Congress quite a bit,” Gates told the Washington Post. “There hasn’t been a big effort along these lines.”

Congress did direct additional funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of the recent spending bill, a small step in the right direction after the agency had to cut its epidemic prevention activities by more than 80 percent earlier this year.

“This could be an important first step if the White House and Congress use the opportunity to articulate and embrace a leadership role for the U.S.,” Gates said in the speech.

While Gates waits for the Trump administration to start taking biological threats seriously, he’s doing his part to help where he can. He announced the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in partnership with the family of Google co-founder Larry Page, will make available $12 million in grants to develop a universal flu vaccine that could protect against most strains of influenza. Still, Gates noted that vaccines take time to develop and deploy, and people will die in the meantime if other steps aren’t taken.