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Rational design of plant systems for sustainable generation of value-added industrial products

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Designer plants mass-produce metabolites

Plants produce small quantities of tiny molecules that are of great value to the pharmaceutical industry. Novel metabolic engineering techniques are opening the door to sustainable large-scale plant-based bioproduction.

Climate Change and Environment

While the quantity of compounds produced by plants is perfect for them, it is too little to be useful to pharmaceutical companies. These molecules are highly complex and often similar to other less useful ones produced by the plants, making them difficult and expensive to isolate and extract. The EU-funded project 'Rational design of plant systems for sustainable generation of value-added industrial products' (SMARTCELL) developed new enabling techniques for industrial-scale exploitation of valuable plant secondary metabolites. Scientists applied novel techniques to untangle the genes and products of the terpenoid indole alkaloid pathway to obtain secondary metabolites with pharmaceutical properties. Starting with a medicinal periwinkle plant that produces small amounts of the compounds of interest, researchers were able to find functional links among genes, enzymes and molecules. Using multigene transformations developed by partners, they then introduced the relevant genes into plant cells to test activity. With advanced and innovative analytical techniques, the team confirmed gene functions and production of target compounds. The genes were then expressed in organisms such as bacteria, fast-growing tobacco, as well as hairy root cultures and cell suspensions that can be grown continuously. Novel bioinformatics tools were developed to measure and characterise spectral differences between groups of tobacco and periwinkle with different genotypes and growth conditions. The hairy root and cell suspension cultures provided the highest yields of geraniol, a target secondary metabolite, with production of approximately one gram within 41 days. Advanced techniques and cost-effective production pathways open the door to produce limitless number of chemicals from equally unlimited types of plants. SMARTCELL has thus laid the groundwork for development of industrial-scale sustainable production of plant-based molecules of pharmaceutical relevance using biotechnological systems while meeting the highest regulatory standards.


Plants, plant cells, metabolic engineering, secondary metabolites, pharmaceutical, multigene transformations, bioinformatics

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