ISU plant scientist leads national effort to use metabolomics to unlock gene functions

AMES, Iowa -- An Iowa State University plant scientist is leading a national research team that will develop a new tool to decipher the functions of plant genes. By advancing the understanding of biological processes, their work could define new ways to improve oils, starches and proteins from corn and soybeans.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded $1 million to fund the project, which is led by Basil Nikolau, professor of biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology and director of the Center for Designer Crops and the W.M. Keck Metabolomics Research Laboratory.

Nikolau and researchers from seven institutions will test the feasibility of using metabolomics to uncover the biological function of genes in Arabidopsis, a plant used as a model organism in research.

The Arabidopsis genome was the first plant genome completely sequenced, an accomplishment that has proven invaluable to understanding plant biology -- including the biology of corn and soybeans. However, the functions of about one-third of the 25,000 genes in the Arabidopsis genome are still unknown.

"When we understand in detail how genes function to regulate biological processes in plants, we can develop foods and animal feeds that have better nutritional quality and crop-based sources for energy or industrial chemicals," Nikolau said.

The grant funds a two-year pilot project focused on deciphering the functions of 100 genes. The long-term goal is to establish an international consortium of research laboratories to further develop metabolomics as a tool in functional genomics.

Metabolomics uses sophisticated instruments to accurately measure, en masse, the biochemcials (metabolites) that make up an organism. Metabolites are the building blocks of all biological products, including those important to agriculture, like oils, sugars and proteins. Metabolism -- the complex network of biochemical reactions that converts metabolites to final products -- is determined by the organism's genetic blueprint or genome.

The research will be conducted at the interface between chemistry, biochemistry, genetics and bioinformatics. Researchers will generate metabolomics and genomics data, conduct statistical analyses, develop standards for identifying metabolites and complete biocomputational modeling and representation of the data. This work will enable the research community to integrate metabolomics data with and decipher the function of genes in the biological network.

Other Iowa State researchers involved on the project are Julie Dickerson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering; Philip Dixon, professor of statistics; George Kraus, University Professor of chemistry; Nicola Pohl, assistant professor of chemistry; and Eve Wurtele, professor of genetics, development and cell biology.

In addition, researchers from the following institutions are part of the consortium: University of California, Davis; Carnegie Institution, Stanford, Calif.; The Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation, Ardmore, Okla.; Kansas State University, Manhattan; Washington State University, Pullman; and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg.

The project grew out of discussions last year among the scientists at the Third International Congress on Plant Metabolomics organized by Nikolau and colleagues and hosted by the Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State.

"The grant builds upon Iowa State's leadership and success in metabolomics," Nikolau said.

Last year, the university opened its $1.8 million W.M. Keck Metabolomics Research Laboratory. The laboratory is home to highly sophisticated separation and detection equipment that analyze a wide variety of metabolites and make it possible for researchers to conduct high-throughput microanalysis of metabolites in plant tissues. Research conducted in the laboratory is uncovering knowledge about genes important to the production of biorenewable feedstocks from crops, starch biosynthesis in corn and new phytochemicals in Echinacea that may boost the human immune system.

"Metabolomics could potentially reveal how the genome of an organism controls and regulates the metabolism that maintains biological form and function," Nikolau said. "The applications of this fundamental research extend far and wide. From this type of basic knowledge comes technological innovations that can drive economic development."

The Center for Designer Crops is part of the Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State, which is dedicated to becoming one of the world's leading plant science research institutes. More than 200 faculty from the College of Agriculture, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the College of Human Sciences and the College of Engineering conduct research in nine centers of the institute. They seek fundamental knowledge about plant systems to help feed the growing world population, strengthen human health and nutrition, improve crop quality and yield, foster environmental sustainability and expand the uses of plants for biobased products and bioenergy. The Plant Sciences Institute supports the training of students for exciting career opportunities and promotes new technologies to aid in the economic development of agriculture and industry throughout the state. The institute is supported through public and private funding.