Accumulation of an organic anticancer selenium compound in a transgenic Solanaceous species shows wider applicability of the selenocysteine methyltransferase transgene from selenium hyperaccumulators

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Tolerance to high selenium (Se) soils in Se-hyperaccumulating plant species is correlated with the ability to biosynthesise methylselenocysteine (MeSeCys), due to the activity of selenocysteine methyltransferase (SMT). In mammals, inclusion of MeSeCys in the diet reduces the incidence of certain cancers, so increasing the range of crop plants that can produce this compound is an attractive biotechnology target. However, in the non-Se accumulator Arabidopsis, overexpression of SMT does not result in biosynthesis of MeSeCys from selenate because the rate at which selenate is reduced to selenite by ATP sulfurylase (ATPS) is low. This limitation is less problematic in other species of the Brassicaceae that can produce MeSeCys naturally. We investigated the potential for biosynthesis of MeSeCys in other plant families using Nicotiana tabacum L., a member of the Solanaceae. When plants were watered with 200 μM selenate, overexpression of a SMT transgene caused a 2- to 4-fold increase in Se accumulation (resulting in increased numbers of leaf lesions and areas of necrosis), production of MeSeCys (up to 20% of total Se) and generation of volatile dimethyl diselenide derived directly from MeSeCys. Despite the greatly increased accumulation of total Se, this did not result in increased Se toxicity effects on growth. Overexpression of ATPS did not increase Se accumulation from selenate. Accordingly, lines overexpressing both ATPS and SMT did not show a further increase in total Se accumulation or in leaf toxicity symptoms relative to overexpression of SMT alone, but directed a greater proportion of Se into MeSeCys. This work demonstrates that the production of the cancer-preventing compound MeSeCys in plants outside the Brassicaceae is possible. We conclude that while the SMT gene from Se hyperaccumulators can probably be utilised universally to increase the metabolism of Se into MeSeCys, the effects of enhancing ATPS activity will vary depending on the species involved.

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