What is SmartCell?

SmartCell is an EU-funded research project aiming to develop novel tools based on plant cells for the synthesis of valuable pharmaceutical molecules.

Who is involved?

The SmartCell consortium encompasses 18 partners from the EU and Switzerland, inlcuding 14 research institutes and universities, two SMEs and two large industrial partners.

Who funds the project?

The project is funded by the EU under the Seventh Framework Program with a total budget of 8.5 million Euros.

How long will the project last?

The project is funded for four years.

Why are plant cells considered a promising basis for the production of valuable molecules? 

Plants produce a vast number of complex molecules as part of their metabolic processes and many of these molecules make useful drugs. Indeed, almost a quarter of all drugs contain active ingredients derived from plants, since the complex molecules are difficult or impossible to synthesize chemically. Unfortunately, most plants in their natural habitats produce tiny amounts of these molecules making extraction difficult and expensive, and risking their over-exploitation.

What is the SmartCell project trying to achieve?

In order to facilitate the economical production of valuable molecules without damaging natural plant life, the project aims to engineer plant cells to produce the molecules in containment, similar to the way microbes are used to produce antibiotics and pigments. Compared to microbes, the metabolic pathways of plants are complex and relatively little is known about them. The project aims to characterize the pathways in detail and learn how to manipulate them to make valuable molecules in greater amounts and at a lower cost.

How will the objectives be met?

The SmartCell consortium includes scientists from diverse fields who will pool their talents and expertise to determine the mechanisms of secondary metabolite production, isolate the genes and transfer these to plant cells, and recreate the metabolic pathways in this novel background. The plant cells will be turned into 'green factories' to produce pharmaceutical molecules.

Which molecules and metabolic pathways are being investigated?

The project will initially focus on the terpenoid pathway, which leads to a variety of useful molecules such as the anti-cancer drugs vinblastine and vincristine. Many of the genes in this pathway are already known. The project will aim to fill in the gaps in current knowledge and achieve the synthesis of desirable terpenoid molecules in engineered plant cells.