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Toxicants Reduced to Detection Limit

Unique Innovation Worldwide: TU Dort­mund University Produces Nicotine-Free Tobacco

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Two people in white coats are standing in a laboratory holding labware. © Martina Hengesbach​/​TU Dort­mund
Dr. Felix Stehle and Julia Schachtsiek succeeded in lowering harmful nicotine in tobacco down to detection limit.

Dr. Felix Stehle (42) of TU Dort­mund University has succeeded, in collaboration with Julia Schachtsiek (29), in lowering harmful nicotine in tobacco down to detection limit. Instead of 16 milligrams, each gram of tobacco now contains only 0.04 milligrams of nicotine, a reduction by a factor of 400. On 22 September, Dr. Stehle presented this innovation, which is unique worldwide, to experts at the InterTabac trade fair in Dort­mund, by its own account the world’s leading exhibition for tobacco goods and smoking accessories.

That precisely the tobacco industry is interested in this topic is quite astonishing, finds Stehle, but at the same time logical: “With nicotine-free cigarettes, manufacturers could open up an additional market for themselves,” he says, “namely the target group of smokers who would like to give up as well as people who want to keep to their usual smoking habits but at the same time avoid harmful nicotine.” That is why Stehle was asked to present his development at the exhibition after an article he and his colleague had submitted appeared in the Plant Biotechnology Journal in June.

The development of the nicotine-free tobacco demanded three years of intensive research work. First, Stehle and Schachtsiek soaked leaves of the Virginia Smoking Tobacco plant in petri dishes in a bacterial solution containing CRISPR gene scissors. First of all, the scissors cut through the six genes of the tobacco plant that are responsible for nicotine production. Although the plant then put these genes back together again, it built in a defect – which meant the genes remained disabled. As a consequence, the plants were no longer able to produce nicotine. The research team then removed the gene scissors from the plant again, creating a “new” nicotine-free tobacco plant. “In our view, once treatment is completed the plant is GMO-free,” says Stehle. There is, however, an EU ruling dated July 2018 that prohibits the cultivation of such plants in Europe. For this reason, Stehle considers that the market for this nicotine-free type of tobacco lies not in Europe but above all overseas.

Seedlings grew in the labs of the Faculty of Biochemical and Chemical Engineering

The Stehle/Schachtsiek team would need about 18 months if companies wanted them to free their own particular type of tobacco of nicotine. The plants were treated in the labs of the Faculty of Biochemical and Chemical Engineering and the seedlings were cultivated in the basement of the faculty’s buildings on North Campus, where they grew in controlled conditions under artificial light. “Tobacco is a beautiful plant with large green leaves and pale-pink flowers,” says Stehle ardently.

Stehle stopped smoking about seven years ago and Julia Schachtsiek never started. Incidentally, they are exploding a myth: The cigarettes previously sold as “light” by no means contained less nicotine than normal cigarettes. Instead, they had a filter that added air to the cigarette smoke as the smoker inhaled and thus reduced the nicotine content of that particular draw on the cigarette. However, the cigarette itself contained just as much nicotine as a normal one. This was also the reason why – following legal disputes – light cigarettes disappeared from the market.

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Location & approach

The campus of TU Dort­mund University is located close to interstate junction Dort­mund West, where the Sauerlandlinie A 45 (Frankfurt-Dort­mund) crosses the Ruhrschnellweg B 1 / A 40. The best interstate exit to take from A 45 is "Dort­mund-Eichlinghofen" (closer to Campus Süd), and from B 1 / A 40 "Dort­mund-Dorstfeld" (closer to Campus Nord). Signs for the university are located at both exits. Also, there is a new exit before you pass over the B 1-bridge leading into Dort­mund.

To get from Campus Nord to Campus Süd by car, there is the connection via Vogelpothsweg/Baroper Straße. We recommend you leave your car on one of the parking lots at Campus Nord and use the H-Bahn (suspended monorail system), which conveniently connects the two campuses.

TU Dort­mund University has its own train station ("Dort­mund Universität"). From there, suburban trains (S-Bahn) leave for Dort­mund main station ("Dort­mund Hauptbahnhof") and Düsseldorf main station via the "Düsseldorf Airport Train Station" (take S-Bahn number 1, which leaves every 20 or 30 minutes). The university is easily reached from Bochum, Essen, Mülheim an der Ruhr and Duisburg.

You can also take the bus or subway train from Dort­mund city to the university: From Dort­mund main station, you can take any train bound for the Station "Stadtgarten", usually lines U41, U45, U 47 and U49. At "Stadtgarten" you switch trains and get on line U42 towards "Hombruch". Look out for the Station "An der Palmweide". From the bus stop just across the road, busses bound for TU Dort­mund University leave every ten minutes (445, 447 and 462). Another option is to take the subway routes U41, U45, U47 and U49 from Dort­mund main station to the stop "Dort­mund Kampstraße". From there, take U43 or U44 to the stop "Dort­mund Wittener Straße". Switch to bus line 447 and get off at "Dort­mund Universität S".

Dort­mund Airport offers flights to several destinations in Central Europe. There are regular connections to Katowice, Kraków, London and Munich. For the approximately 20km-trip from Dort­mund Airport to TU Dort­mund University, you can use a shuttle bus to the railway Station "Bahnhof Holzwickede", from which trains depart to Dort­mund main station (please visit Verkehrsverbund Rhein-Ruhr for more information). Normally, the fastest way is to catch a taxi at Dort­mund Airport.

The H-Bahn is one of the hallmarks of TU Dort­mund University. There are two stations on Campus Nord. One ("Dort­mund Universität S") is directly located at the suburban train stop, which connects the university directly with the city of Dort­mund and the rest of the Ruhr Area. Also from this station, there are connections to the "Technologiepark" and (via Campus Süd) Eichlinghofen. The other station is located at the dining hall at Campus Nord and offers a direct connection to Campus Süd every five minutes.