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New Studies of Seed Oil Boosts Potential for Biofuel

Ultrastructure of a chloroplast.

Seed oil, aka vegetable oil, is a basic part of food. Scientists have been experimenting with harvesting that oil to make biofuels that could someday power our jets and cars.

But seed oil production is complicated, and we still have a lot to know about how the oil is produced and managed before we can reap the benefits.

What we do know is that the precursors for seed oil come from many sources in a plant cell. And Kun (Kenny) Wang and the lab of Christoph Benning, MSU Foundation Professor and director of the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory,  have recently identified a new, potentially significant one.

The study is published in the journal The Plant Cell.

Different parts of the cell do specific things. Mitochondria make energy. The cell wall protects the cell. These definitions hold true, but they are a bit like describing an old dial phone, which can do only one thing: make phone calls.

Cell components are like smartphones, more complex. Although they keep their original purpose (phone calls), they have a lot of apps that do useful things unrelated to making calls.

That’s true for the chloroplast. Chloroplasts, found in plant cells, are miniature ‘energy factories’ and the site of photosynthesis, the basis of life on Earth. Chloroplasts are mainly known as the source of photosynthesis, the process that sustains life on Earth.

Photosynthesis is the process responsible for using light and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for plant growth and for providing food and energy to most of the planet’s inhabitants. Now, we are finding that it also has an app to help produce seed oil.

“Previously, people thought that oil production was largely based in one cellular component, the massive cellular factory known as the endoplasmic reticulum,” Wang, a graduate student in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, says. The endoplasmic reticulum is a membrane system that forms a series of flattened sacs within cells. It serves multiple functions, especially making and transporting proteins to their destinations.

“We are finding that the chloroplast also helps in ways we did not think of before.”

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