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$5.3mil. NSF Grant to Find New Genes, Plant Chemicals

Robert Last

A team of Michigan State University researchers has been awarded a $5.3 million National Science Foundation grant to explore new approaches to discovering plant chemicals, and find the genes that plants use to make valuable molecules.

According to MSU biochemistry and molecular biology Barnett Rosenberg Professor Robert Last, who is leading the project, the research will examine metabolites – small molecules with wide-ranging applications to human wellbeing, from food to fuels to pharmaceuticals.

“Specialized metabolites comprise hundreds of thousands of compounds throughout the plant kingdom, but we know how very few of them are made,” Last said. “Plants are responsible for the production of most of the materials that contribute to our diet, drugs, building materials, clothing, and many important industrial chemicals.”

The primary goals of the research project are to:

  • Understand how changes in the genes and genomes of plants lead to innovations, revealing fundamental principles of evolution.
  • Develop a whole plant family – the Solanaceae or nightshade family – as a model for understanding how metabolism evolved over tens of millions of years. The nightshade family includes important crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplants. It also includes plants that make a variety of alkaloids used in medicine, such as scopolamine, a powerful treatment for motion sickness.
  • Develop methods to speed up discovery of potentially useful metabolites, and find the genes that allow plants to produce these compounds.

“Finding new compounds and identifying the biosynthetic pathways that make them can be slow and difficult,” Last said. “If we can speed this up further, it would lead to the ability to produce important new drugs, safe pesticides and other high value compounds in microbes or crop plants.”

Plants, called “master chemists” by Last, produce thousands of varieties of small molecules, and some are used by humans as medicines and environmentally safe pesticides. The metabolic pathways – a series of chemical reactions occurring within a cell – for only a small fraction of these compounds are well understood. This leaves much to learn about how plants produce this enormous diversity of products – a problem that this collaborative research project aims to solve.

“This project merges two fields that usually are separate: evolutionary biology and metabolic biochemistry and allows us to understand both more powerfully,” Last said. “We have assembled a group of scientists with highly complementary skills to do work that could not be done by any one of our groups.”

Collaborating with Last are MSU scientists A. Daniel Jones, Shin-Han Shiu and Cornelius Barry, as well as Eran Pichersky at the University of Michigan.

The NSF’s Plant Genome Research Program began in 1998 as part of the National Plant Genome Initiative and has aided an increase in the availability of functional genomics tools and sequence resources for use in the study of key crop plants and their models.

Mark Kuykendall, Robert Last via MSU Today

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