Understanding plant metabolism

man with lgasses working with plantsMSU scientists want to understand the genes that control plant metabolism and the compounds that are produced as a result. The ability to control the quantity of each compound produced is hugely important to the bioeconomy.

"To supply the amount of biomass that will be necessary for a thriving bioeconomy, a huge amount of basic research has to be done to prepare the way," said Bruce Dale, professor of chemical engineering and materials science. "MSU's advanced expertise in systems biology, metabolic engineering and biotechnology concentrated in plant systems is important to the bioeconomy's success because that expertise can change the properties and composition of the actual plant raw material."

Dean Della Penna (pictured at right) and Dan Jones, professors of biochemistry and molecular biology (Jones also heads the MSU Mass Spectrometry Facility), along with Yair Shachar-Hill, associate professor of plant biology, received a Strategic Partnership Grant from the MSU Foundation to do some of this basic plant research work.

The scientists are studying Arabidopsis as a model plant to identify the key genes that control the metabolic network of plants and determine the levels and types of compounds created by the network.

Identifying the genes that control the creation of specific plant compounds and their quantities will allow plant breeders to develop new varieties of feedstocks that produce large quantities of readily available, easily fermentable compounds such as starch or oil. Crop varieties could be created specifically for biofuel production. In the future, farmers might have the option of growing one variety of corn for food and feed and another for biofuel.

"We're not the ones making the biofuel," Della Penna explained. "We're much further back in the system, trying to engineer plant metabolism on a scale that hasn't been attempted before, which is very exciting. Our work is at a very basic, fundamental level that involves the core components of all plants. What we do in Arabidopsis could be applied to almost any plant."

Della Penna is internationally known for his work on the synthesis and function of vitamin E in plants. It was research on vitamin E that led to the idea for a key part of this metabolic engineering work.

Della Penna found that when a key gene in vitamin E synthesis was disrupted, the movement of carbohydrates from plant leaves was also blocked, causing large amounts of starch (an easily fermentable carbohydrate) to accumulate in the leaves.

"This is a good example of a breakthrough that happened while we were looking at something else," Della Penna said. "You never know when it's going to occur. We made a desirable outcome happen — now we need to understand how it happened and how we can manipulate that to make other desirable things happen."