BNL researchers decode plants' oil secrets

An undated photo of former Brookhaven postdoc Carl An undated photo of former Brookhaven postdoc Carl Andre and Brookhaven biochemist John Shanklin. Photo Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

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Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have decoded how plants regulate oil production and may one day be able to trick them into making more, creating a renewable source of biofuel and vegetable oil.

That knowledge could allow scientists to engineer crops such as soybean, canola and corn to increase oil production. More production per plant could then lead to a reduction in the land needed to grow those plants.

"It's all about efficiency," Brookhaven biochemist John Shanklin said Monday. "It's very important that as population expands, we learn how to make agriculture more efficient."

Crop oil production is expected to increase this year, with soybeans as the most widely grown in the country, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2009, 19.2 million pounds of soybean oil were produced, the agency reported.

Plants create oil as an energy source for new seeds and then shut down production when they have generated the amount needed.

"If we can interrupt this process, we hope to fool the cells so they won't be able to gauge how much oil they have made, and will make more," Shanklin said.

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Shanklin and former postdoctoral research fellow Carl Andre isolated a fatty acid and protein that gives plants the "slow down" signal, as well as the enzyme that stops oil production.

"Now that we understand how this system operates -- how plants 'know' when they've made enough oil and how they slow down production -- we can look for ways to break the feedback loops," he said.

The findings from the four-year study, funded by the Department of Energy's Office of Science and Germany-based Bayer CropScience, are to be released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"It's definitely something we didn't know about," said Christoph Benning, a professor at Michigan State University's biochemistry department. He's also affiliated with Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, which focuses on converting plant biomass into bioenergy.

"It means they have a new way of engineering plants that can make more" oil, Benning said. "You have less impact on the environment. You need less land. If you can do more with less, that's great." Scientists at Brookhaven National Lab have decoded oil production mysteries in plants, which may lead to more efficient agriculture practices by:

increasing production from oil crops such as canola and soybean

decreasing acreage needed for growing crops

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