The results, described Wednesday in the British journal Nature, address a longstanding question in plant biology why do oilseed plants rely on a seemingly inefficient metabolic process to produce such prodigious amount of energy-rich oil? The answer, according to the MSU team, is that plant seeds are more efficient than anyone thought.
"Seeds achieve this high efficiency by using long-known biochemical reactions that are combined in an unconventional way, which had not been expected by biochemists," said Jrg Schwender, MSU plant biology professor and lead author of the study.
The researchers studied canola (or rapeseed), an annual crop in the mustard family that is widely cultivated throughout the upper Midwest, Canada, Europe and Asia. The oil extracted from the seeds of this plant is used to make everything from margarine to industrial lubricants.
Seeds store large oil reserves to use as energy to germinate and grow. In canola, for example, oil can comprise half of the seed's weight.
The rise of modern biochemistry over the last few decades has increased interest in making quantitative descriptions of plants and animals' biochemical reactions.
When it came to canola, the biochemical balance sheet just didn't add up. As far as researchers could tell, the seeds were relying on a creaky and inefficient pathway to produce their sought-after oil.
All plants employ carbon from carbon dioxide to make organic biomass compounds such as sugars, oils and proteins in stems, leaves and flowers.
To harvest carbon from the air, plants go to lots of trouble to convert carbon dioxide into simple sugars. When canola subsequently transformed these sugars into oils, the plants appeared to cough up lots of the carbon dioxid
Contact: Jrg Schwender
Michigan State University