A new chloroplast 'app' for making biofuels
- Jul 11, 2017
- Department of Energy Projects, Green Solutions (Applied)
- Igor Houwat, Kun Wang, Christoph Benning
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 Benning lab have recently identified a new, potentially significant one.
The study is published in the journal The Plant Cell.
Dial phones and Smartphones
In middle school, we learn that different parts of the cell do specific things. Mitochondria make energy. The cell wall protects the cell. And so on.
These definitions hold true, but they are a bit like describing this:
Old dial phones can do only one thing: 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.
“Previously, people thought that oil production was largely based in one cellular component, the massive cellular factory known as the endoplasmic reticulum,” Kenny, a graduate student in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, says.
“We are finding that the chloroplast also helps in ways we did not think of before.”
The chloroplast’s oil app
Seed oil is made out of lipids: small molecules found in fats, oils, and waxes, and that make up the boundaries of all living cell components. The main reason they are interesting for biofuels is that they store energy.
Left over lipid products are then transported to the endoplasmic reticulum, where they become building blocks for seed oil.
“This use and recycling of lipids is part of a process that keeps chloroplast membranes finely tuned to any developmental or environmental changes. The interesting part, though, is how this seemingly unrelated process connects to making seed oil.”
To confirm the function, Kenny found a plant that had much less PLIP1 - basically, a buggy app - meaning that lipid breakdown products couldn’t move as much out of the chloroplast.
“With less PLIP1, young embryos developed slower than normal. Seed weight and seed oil content were also reduced. We saw PLIP1 mostly active in the younger stages of a plant’s life cycle, during seed production.”
All roads lead to Rome: PLIP1 and biofuel production
Kenny wants to increase the number of PLIP1s in plants targeted for biofuels. The idea goes that more of them leads to more lipid products for more seed oil harvested.
Cell components are like smartphones, more complex... They have a lot of apps that do useful things unrelated to making calls.
One advantage with PLIP1 is that it is found in most land plants, which makes it easy to experiment on different species, including crops like sorghum or switchgrass.
PLIP1 also seems responsible for 10% of the lipid precursors that end up as seed oil.
“That might seem like a low number. However, seed oil is made from many sources, and the main one is responsible for 20-40% of final product. In that light, 10% is significant.”
Kenny’s mentor, Christoph Benning, says that 10% of soybean yield could amount to a humungous contribution.
But the road ahead is tricky. Kenny has already tried dialing up the PLIP1 app in one plant, but that somehow turned on another app that does plant defense. The result: a smaller plant with less seed oil.
“Oil production and defense functions don’t co-exist well. We have a few ideas to bypass this caveat, and we’ve already filled out a patent application to try this strategy in a new plant. We still have a lot to learn about how lipids are made and moved.”
- [VIDEO] New biofuel production system powered by a community of algae and fungi
- September 4, 2018
The system lowers cultivation and harvesting costs and increases productivity, factors that currently hold back biofuels from being widely adopted.
- Keeping up with lipids on the move: a new molecular tracking method
- June 29, 2018
Scientists have created a new tracking method for plant lipids. The approach could fill our knowledge gaps of lipid movement and help us improve yields in crops targeted for biofuels.
- Squeezing oil out of plants and into your gas tank: it's hard.
- June 20, 2017
When the Benning lab tried a technique for producing plant biofuels, an unexpected result led to an increase in our basic knowledge of plant biology.
- Growing pains and how that might affect seed quality
- May 16, 2017
The Brandizzi lab is showing how extreme heat negatively impacts seed quality in plants targeted for producing biofuels.
- Managing photosynthesis' traffic jams
- November 10, 2016
The Ducat lab has coaxed a lab-grown cyanobacteria to efficiently make and export sugar, a technique which could someday lead to greater biofuel production at lower cost.