A new rhomboid-like protein that helps plants produce lipids

  • May 13, 2019
  • fundamental research, Benning lab
  • Department of Energy Projects, Feature News Story, Fundamental Research, Nonfeature News Story
  • By Igor Houwat, Anastasiya Lavell

The Benning lab has identified a rhomboid-like protein that may help plant expand iconchloroplasts tune their lipid production. The study is published in The Plant Journal.

expand iconLipids are molecules that make up fats and oils in living beings, and they perform a variety of functions. They make up our cell boundaries, from which we get tissues and organs. Lipids store more energy than other molecules, which is desirable for developing biofuels. They also provide plants with the membrane building blocks needed to harvest light for expand iconphotosynthesis.

In plant cells, an assembly line of expand iconenzymes makes, modifies, and deploys lipids to the proper locations in a cell.

One of the big mysteries in plant lipid studies is how plants control this production system. Figuring this out could give us clues on how plants optimize photosynthesis, even when surrounding conditions are difficult, like drought or heat. We might also learn how to boost plant productivity, through genetic or breeding tools.

“When I joined the Benning lab, I wanted to start a new project addressing these outstanding questions,” says Anastasiya Lavell, a graduate student in the lab of Christoph Benning. “I searched a database for mutants that had changes in their lipid make-up and found one with a disrupted gene that encoded a rhomboid-like protein 10, which we call RBL10.”

Normal lipid production
GIF Part 1: Regular lipid production in a chloroplast, a conveyor belt of enzymes and intermediary lipids leading to MGDG.
By MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory, 2019

The team of scientists thinks the protein is found in the inner envelope membrane of chloroplasts, a busy conveyor belt of processes.

“When we remove RBL10 from plants, we see a blockage in chloroplast lipid production," Lavell says. "Specifically, phosphatidic acid (PA), an intermediary form of lipid, does not turn into monogalactolipid (MGDG), the most abundant lipid in plants that's very important for photosynthesis."

Lavell suspects RBL10 helps move the intermediary lipid towards the next processing station in the assembly line. Or, perhaps, RBL10 affects another protein that moves this lipid.

RBL-10: disrupted lipid production
GIF Part 2: Without RBL-10, lipid production is disrupted, and plant development is negatively affected.
By MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory, 2019

The absence of RBL10 in the mutant plants causes a cascade of changes. The block in conversion of PA to MGDG causes the plants to produce new MGDG in alternative molecular pathways. But there are downstream costs to this change in the production system.

“We see that the plants have negatively affected flower and pollen development,” Lavell says. “There are also potential deficiencies in the production of hormones that defend the plant against wounding from herbivores.”

This is the first time a rhomboid-like protein – and how it influences the synthesis and transport of lipids – has been studied in detail in plants.

“Rhomboid-like proteins are found across a large number of organisms, like bacteria, flies, even us humans,” Lavell says. “These proteins are better studied in those other organisms, but not in plants. For context, the plant we study, Arabidopsis, has thirteen of them. Two are in the chloroplast. So, it’s probably important.”

“One reason we lag behind in plant science is that plant lipids are hard to study,” Lavell says. “For example, the chloroplast has a complex membrane structure, tough to observe. It also is deeply interwoven into many plant functions, like growth, photosynthesis, and defense. So, it is hard to tease out where its influence begins or ends. But the challenge makes it all the more exciting to see where this goes.”


This work was primarily funded by the US Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.