A collaboration between Iowa State University and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has uncovered the function of three plant proteins, a discovery that could help plant scientists boost seed oil production in crops, increasing the production of food and biofuels.

“This work has major implications for modulating the fatty-acid profiles in plants, which is terribly important, not only to sustainable food production and nutrition but now also to biorenewable chemicals and fuels,” said Joseph Noel, a professor and director of the Jack H. Skirball Center for Chemical Biology and Proteomics at the Salk Institute.

“Because very high-energy molecules such as fatty acids are created in the plant using the energy of the sun, these types of molecules may ultimately provide the most cost-effective and efficient sources for biorenewable products,” added Eve Syrkin Wurtele, a professor of genetics, development and cell biology at Iowa State.

The analysis of gene activity (by the Iowa group) and determination of protein structures (by the Salk group) independently identified in the model plant thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) three related proteins that appear to be involved in fatty-acid metabolism. The Iowa and Salk researchers then joined forces to test this hypothesis, demonstrating a role of these proteins in regulating the amounts and types of fatty acids accumulated in plants. The researchers also showed that the action of the proteins is very sensitive to temperature and that this feature may play an important role in how plants mitigate temperature stress using fatty acids.

Although the researchers now understand that the three proteins – dubbed fatty-acid-binding proteins one, two and three, or FAP1, FAP2 and FAP3 – are involved in fatty-acid accumulation in plant tissues such as leaves and seeds, Wurtele said researchers still don’t understand the physical mechanism these proteins employ at the molecular level. That knowledge will ultimately allow the two collaborating research groups to predictably engineer better functions in plants.

“The proteins appear to be crucial missing links in the metabolism of fatty acids in Arabidopsis, and likely serve a similar function in other plant species since we find the same genes spread throughout the plant kingdom,” said Ryan Philippe, a post-doctoral researcher in Noel’s lab.

“If the researchers can understand precisely what role the proteins play in seed oil production,” said first author Michelle Ngaki, “they might be able to modify the proteins’ activity in new plant strains that produce more oil or higher quality oil than current crops.”

Further, if the three proteins help plants regulate stress, plant scientists might be able to exploit that trait to develop plants that are more resistant to stress, Wurtele said. And that could allow farmers to grow crops for biorenewable fuels and chemicals on marginal land that’s not suited for food crops.

All of this, she said, could point to new directions in biological studies.

“We are entering the age of predictive biology,” Wurtele said. “That means harnessing computational approaches to deduce gene function, model biological processes and predict the consequences of altering a single gene to the complex biological network of an organism.”

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