Seed World

New Genetic Method to Enhance Oil Seed Production

A Physaraia plant, which researchers discovered can change the chemical make-up of the oil in its seeds after the oil is already made. Photo: Phil Bates, WSU

Scientists say the method could impact industrial, food oils.

Washington State University (WSU) scientists have discovered a novel genetic mechanism in plant oil biosynthesis, that could transform the production of valuable oils. Published in Nature Communications, this proof-of-concept study showcases how genetically engineered plants could dramatically improve the yield of specialized seed oils.

“Scientists have been working on producing novel seed oil compositions for decades, but most of the time you only get small amounts of the desired oil,” WSU professor and the study’s lead author Phil Bates said in a WSU news release.

The team’s research focuses on Physaria fendleri, a relative of canola, which uniquely modifies its seed oil’s fatty acid composition post-production, a capability previously unknown in plants.

By leveraging this mechanism, researchers engineered Arabidopsis, a model plant, to mimic Physaria’s oil remodeling process. The result was a substantial increase in the production of an oil akin to castor oil, which the plant does not naturally produce. This modification helped overcome metabolic bottlenecks, showcasing the potential of this technology.

The significance of plant oils spans across food, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, industrial, chemical and biofuel industries, primarily due to their fatty acid content. Bates highlighted that while castor beans are immensely valuable for industrial uses like lubricants, they are risky to grow due to the associated production of ricin, a potent toxin. The United States prohibits castor cultivation, making the oil expensive and limited to certain regions globally.

“We can use this new biosynthetic process as a tool to change oil composition,” Bates stated. “We’re at the starting point of putting this into crop plants. We want to eventually produce healthy fatty acids beyond industrial uses.”

The research opens avenues for safer, more efficient oil production and also paves the way for future explorations into other plants that might possess similar oil remodeling capabilities.

The project is a collaborative effort between Bates’ lab, the Smertenko lab at WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, and two labs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.