UPTON, NY - Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory have identified key elements in the biochemical mechanism plants use to limit the production of fatty acids. The results suggest ways scientists might target those biochemical pathways to increase the production of plant oils as a renewable resource for biofuels and industrial processes.
"Now that we understand how this system operates - how plants 'know' when they've made enough oil and how they slow down production - we can look for ways to break the feedback loop so they keep making more oil," said Brookhaven biochemist John Shanklin, leader of the group publishing the work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of June 4, 2012.
Similar biochemical feedback loops regulate a wide range of metabolic processes in living things. They work similar to the way a thermostat maintains a relatively constant temperature in your home: When it gets too warm, the heating system turns off until the temperature falls to the set point, at which time it turns on again.
"There were hints that such a feedback system might exist for plant oil production," said Shanklin, who credits Carl Andre - a former postdoctoral research fellow now working at BASF Plant Science in North Carolina - with designing and carrying out the intricate biochemical detective work that uncovered the details.
"It's very difficult to work on developing oil seeds because they are very tiny," Shanklin explained. So the scientists performed their biochemical tests using a plant embryo cell culture to simulate what goes on in the seeds.
With assistance from the Radiotracer Chemistry and Biological Imaging group at Brookhaven (http://www.bnl.gov/medical/RCIBI/), Andre synthesized "labeled" forms of the fatty acids that occur as intermediates along the metabolic pathway that leads to oil production. He fed these, one at a time, to the plant cell cu
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DOE/Brookhaven National Laboratory