This Pac-Man-Like Bacteria Could Be the Future of Smoking Cessation

By May Wilkerson 08/10/15

A nicotine-chomping enzyme could be the key to kicking the habit.

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Everyone knows by now that smoking can lead to all kinds of harmful and gory medical problems. But quitting is notoriously difficult. There may be hope in a new scientific finding: a bacteria that sucks all the pleasure right out of smoking, making it a lot easier to kick the habit.

How does it work? The bacterial enzyme, which was discovered in the soil of tobacco fields, seeks out all the nicotine it can find and converts it into the carbon and nitrogen it needs to survive. Basically, it chomps up nicotine, which is why scientists have dubbed it “little Pac-Man."

Nicotine is the drug in cigarettes responsible for positive stimulation, including relaxation, calmness and alertness. It can also improve focus and alleviate anxiety. These sensations are what makes smoking so addictive.

Popular quitting aids, like nicotine patches or e-cigarettes, are meant to help a smoker slowly wean off nicotine over time by gradually reducing the dose. But past studies have found these techniques to be ineffective and many smokers will eventually return to the habit.

Blocking the positive effects of nicotine on the body could potentially be far more effective in helping people quit. This is what researchers at the Scripps Research Institute hope the Pseudomonas putida bacteria will help achieve.

Nicotine generally remains in the bloodstream for about three hours after ingestion. But when the “Pac-Man” bacteria was tested on mice blood, it cut down the duration of nicotine in the blood to about 15 minutes—a significant reduction. Scientists plan to modify the bacteria so it can reduce this time even more and block nicotine from reaching the brain at all.

The bacteria is currently undergoing tests to see if it could pass as a drug. If all goes well, a few years down the line, smokers could be prescribed a course of drugs that would block nicotine from reaching the brain. Those who take the drug and quit smoking would still experience withdrawal symptoms, but if they pick up a cigarette, it wouldn’t offer any relief.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.