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November 30th, 2017 / Phys.org

A research team led by Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research has harnessed metabolomic technologies to unravel the molecular activities of a key protein that can enable plants to withstand a common herbicide. Their findings reveal how the protein—a kind of catalyst or enzyme, first isolated in bacteria and introduced into plants, including crops such as corn and soybeans, in the 1990’s— can sometimes act imprecisely, and how it can be successfully re-engineered to be more precise. The new study, which appears online in the journal Nature Plants, raises the standards for bioengineering in the 21st century.

“Our work underscores a critical aspect of bioengineering that we are now becoming technically able to address,” says senior author Jing-Ke Weng, a Member of the Whitehead Institute and an assistant professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We know that enzymes can behave indiscriminately. Now, we have the scientific capabilities to detect their molecular side effects, and we can leverage those insights to design smarter enzymes with enhanced specificity.”

Plants provide an extraordinary model for scientists to study how metabolism changes over time. Because they cannot escape from predators or search for new food sources when supplies run low, plants must often grapple with an array of environmental insults using what is readily available—their own internal biochemistry. Read more