Salk Institute scientists have identified a new class of proteins involved in making seed oils. The findings may lead to higher yields of fatty acids, important for animal and human nutrition, renewable sources of industrial chemicals and biofuels.
It’s extremely rare in modern science to discover something completely new, but that’s what the study has done, said Salk Institute researcher Ryan N. Philippe. These proteins perform a previously unknown role in fatty acid production.
The proteins are made by genes turned on in regions of the thale cress plant that make fatty acids, the study found. Scientists use thale cress, known as Arabidopsis thaliana, as a workhorse plant to study biology, much as rodents are used as animal models.
The research was published Sunday in the science journal Nature. The study’s senior author was Salk Institute professor Joseph P. Noel, along with other scientists from Salk and Iowa State University at Ames.
Fatty acids are the energy-containing substances plants and algae are grown for, Philippe said. The proteins could in theory be modified to improve the quantity and quality of fatty acid production for human use. That will require understanding the mechanisms these proteins interact with, he said, and that will require more research.
“Its true biochemical function is something that still eludes us,” he said.
San Diego County has become a major center of biofuels research, aided by the scientific acumen from Salk, UC San Diego and The Scripps Research Institute. Two privately held companies in nearby La Jolla are developing algae-based biofuels, Sapphire Energy and Synthetic Genomics Inc.
President Barack Obama highlighted the potential of algae-based biofuels to replace petroleum and other fossil fuels earlier this year. However, even optimistic researchers say it could take decades for algal biofuels to become a major fossil fuel replacement.
Significant money is being invested now to reach that potential. Sapphire Energy said in April it had raised $144 million for algal biofuel, raising total investment to more than $300 million. And in 2009 Synthetic Genomics signed a $600 million partnership with Exxon Mobil for the same purpose, with up to $300 million allocated to Synthetic Genomics, founded by biotech pioneer Craig Venter.
The market for algal biofuels is expected to reach $1.3 billion by 2020, according to a report from Pike Research, a Boulder, Colo.-based firm that covers the renewable energy field.
The Iowa State researchers performed the genetic work of identifying where the genes that make these proteins are turned on, or expressed. The Salk team determined the structures of these proteins.
When the genes that make these proteins were inactivated, plants produced altered levels of fatty acids, Philippe said, a finding made by fellow Salk scientist Joseph Ecker.
“Their seeds contained different oils than those of normal plants. And not only that, they have trouble reproducing,” Philippe said.