Plants take in carbon dioxide from the air and transform it into essential chemicals via photosynthesis. Some of these natural chemicals, called aromatic compounds, are also used in a plethora of products for humans, including fuel, industrial materials, and medications like aspirin and morphine. But it’s difficult to get plants to make enough aromatic compounds for economical harvesting, and most of these chemicals for human use, therefore, are derived from fossil fuels.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered a way to alter plants’ genes so they produce more aromatics. Plus, the genetic change prompts plants to absorb 30% more CO2 than usual without negatively affecting the plants.
Identifying a production pathway
Plants have a pathway to control aromatics production that essentially acts like vehicle brakes. When enough aromatics are produced, the whole system stops. Up until now, researchers haven’t gained full understanding of the pathway and how it operates.
The UW-Madison researchers conducted genetic screening and mapping to identify exactly what mechanisms control the aromatics production and act as the system brakes. They found that genetic mutations or alterations regulate production.
“We’ve long been interested in this aromatic amino acid pathway because it’s one of the major plant pathways that transform carbon fixed by photosynthesis into medicines, food, fuels, and materials,” Hiroshi Maeda, UW–Madison botany professor, said in a news release. “Now for the first time, we’ve discovered how to regulate the key control knob plants use to turn up production of this pathway.”
The scientists used a mustard plant called Arabidopsis for their experiments. But the “brakes” they identified look similar in different types of plants, indicating extensive applications for this genetic alteration. Using this method on crops could improve bioenergy feedstock production while simultaneously capturing more CO2 from the atmosphere.
One of the study’s co-authors plans to conduct further research to test these gene mutations in crops and valuable aromatics-producing plants. Eventually, this could result in greater aromatics production and less use of fossil fuel-derived aromatics.