Do Scientists want to Grow mRNA Vaccine Molecules in Edible Plants?

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Would being able to eat vaccines as part of your diet make more people willing to take them? With vaccines and especially vaccine uptake dominating global headlines for the past eighteen months, that’s one question researchers at University of California-Riverside are addressing with new research into vaccine delivery.

New Research on Vaccine Delivery

The COVID-19 vaccines, especially the Pfizer and Moderna shots, are the first to use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. They work by teaching cells from the immune system to recognize and attack a certain infectious disease.

One of the problems with mRNA vaccines is that they have to stay in cold storage until use or they lose stability. The UC-Riverside team says if they’re successful, the public could eat plant-based mRNA vaccines which could be kept at room temperature.

With a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation behind them, the researchers now hope to accomplish three goals.

DNA-containing mRNA Vaccines in Plant Cells

First, the team will try to successfully deliver DNA containing mRNA vaccines into plant cells, to allow them to replicate. Next, the study authors want to show that plants can actually produce enough mRNA to replace a traditional injection. Finally, the team will need to determine the right dosage people will need to eat to properly replace vaccinations. Read here.

“Ideally, a single plant would produce enough mRNA to vaccinate a single person,” says Juan Pablo Giraldo, an associate professor in UCR’s Department of Botany and Plant Sciences, in a university release.

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


Giraldo and a team of scientists from UC-San Diego and Carnegie Mellon University say chloroplasts are the key to making edible vaccines. Chloroplasts are small organs inside plant cells which help convert sunlight into energy, using chlorophyll.

“They’re tiny, solar-powered factories that produce sugar and other molecules which allow the plant to grow,” Giraldo explains. “They’re also an untapped source for making desirable molecules.”

Gene transfer in Plants

Studies have already shown that chloroplasts can express genes which are not a natural part of the plant, meaning that they could potentially be used to produce the materials necessary for an mRNA vaccine.

In the new study, Giraldo teamed with UC-San Diego’s Professor Nicole Steinmetz to use nanotechnology to deliver more genetic material into chloroplasts. Read here.

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

“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 adds.

Although the research may go some way towards allaying the fears of people who hate needles, it is unlikely to reassure those who are suspicious of the new mRNA technology being used in some of the vaccines.

We think it’s safe to say that for some, this will simply be another reason not to eat your greens…