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Discovery of plant proteins may boost agricultural yields and biofuel production

Noel Lab

Members of Noel's lab: postdoctoral researcher Ryan N. Philippe (center) with staff researcher Gordon V. Louie (left) and lab coordinator Marianne E. Bowman.

Scoring a rare scientific hat trick, researchers in the lab of Joseph Noel, in collaboration with colleagues at Iowa State University, have identified three related proteins in thale cress plants (Arabidopsis thaliana) that regulate the metabolism of fatty acids, chemical components of all cell membranes and vegetable oils.

Plant oils are composed primarily of triglycerides, formed by linking together three fatty acid molecules, and are stored mostly in seeds, where they are used for energy during germination. Seeds are crucial sources of oils for nutrition, flavoring and industrial applications, such as the manufacture of soap and cosmetics as well as for biofuels.

In their study, reported in Nature, Noel and his collaborators identified three promising genes by analyzing plant genomic data, then used a variety of techniques to functionally characterize the proteins these genes produce. They found that the proteins, dubbed FAP1, FAP2 and FAP3, bind fatty acids, including the major plant omega-3 fatty acid, an important nutritional component found in certain seeds. The proteins were found in the chloroplasts, the site of fatty acid production and photosynthesis. This suggested that these proteins play a role in the metabolism of fatty acids and thus in the production of fatty acids for plant membranes and oils.

"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," says Ryan Philippe, a postdoctoral researcher in Noel's lab.

"This work has major implications for modulating the fatty acid profiles of plants, which is terribly important, not only to sustainable food production and nutrition but now to biorenewable chemicals and fuels," adds Noel.