Unlocking the Genomic Secrets of Sosnowsky’s Hogweed: Potential Applications in Medicine and Pharmacology

by Anna

For the first time in history, scientists have delved into the genome of Sosnowsky’s hogweed, an invasive plant notorious for its toxic sap that can cause severe skin burns upon contact. This groundbreaking study, published in The Plant Journal, reveals a genome that harbors nearly twice as many genes as the majority of other plants, shedding light on the plant’s unique attributes and potential applications in medicine and pharmacology.

Sosnowsky’s hogweed, scientifically known as Heracleum sosnowskyi, originally hails from the North Caucasus but has become an invasive species, posing a significant threat to ecosystems and human health. Originally cultivated after World War II as a promising fodder crop in northwest European Russia, it rapidly spread, displacing native plant species and causing ecological imbalances. The plant’s sap contains natural toxins, rendering the human body, particularly the skin and mucous membranes, highly sensitive to ultraviolet radiation, resulting in skin burns and irritation upon contact.

Researchers from Skoltech, in collaboration with colleagues from the A. A. Kharkevich Institute for Information Transmission Problems of RAS, undertook the ambitious task of unraveling the complete genome of Sosnowsky’s hogweed, reaching the chromosome level in their assembly.

Utilizing a DNA sequencer, the team generated comprehensive data on the plant’s genome, uncovering an unexpected abundance of individual genes—55,000 in total—compared to the 25,000–35,000 range typically found in most plants. The researchers attributed this phenomenon to numerous gene duplications (copies), a relatively rare occurrence as plants usually exhibit duplications across their entire genome rather than in isolated segments.

Maria Logacheva, an assistant professor from the Bio Center and a key member of the project team, notes, “This is rather unusual, since plants typically have duplications all over their genome and not just in its individual parts. Many gene families with a sharp increase in the number of genes in Sosnowsky’s hogweed appear as a result of the synthesis of secondary metabolites, including linear furanocoumarins (psoralen and its derivatives), which make hogweed highly dangerous.”

The researchers meticulously examined genes associated with the synthesis of toxins responsible for causing skin burns in daylight. They experimentally identified the function of one gene, responsible for converting marmesin into psoralen.

Beyond its ecological implications, the study opens avenues for practical applications in medicine and pharmacology. Understanding the specific features of Sosnowsky’s hogweed’s genome enables the identification and study of its unique bioactive molecules. These molecules hold the potential to be harnessed for the development of new drugs and innovative treatment approaches for skin-related issues.

Moreover, the insights gained from the study can contribute to the development of biological control and monitoring methods for this invasive plant. The researchers express their intent to continue investigating the hogweed genome, exploring its genetic diversity in both its native habitat and the areas it has invaded. This comprehensive approach aims to uncover spread patterns, strategies, and relationships between Sosnowsky’s hogweed and related species, such as Mantegazzi’s hogweed, which is rapidly proliferating in Western Europe.

In conclusion, the study of Sosnowsky’s hogweed genome marks a significant advancement in understanding this invasive plant’s unique genetic makeup. Beyond its ecological implications, the potential applications in medicine, pharmacology, and ecological management underscore the broader impact of this research.

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