Tapping plant pharmacopeia for better drugs

By David Salisbury
Tuesday, 18 April, 2017

Geneticists have come up with an effective way of using plant pharmacopeia to produce more effective drugs.

“Plants synthesise massive numbers of bioproducts that are of benefit to society. This team has revolutionised the potential to uncover these natural bioproducts and understand how they are synthesised,” said Anne Sylvester, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Biological Sciences Directorate, which funded the research.

The new approach, developed by Vanderbilt University geneticists, is based on the well-established observation that plants produce these compounds in response to specific environmental conditions.

“We hypothesised that the genes within a network that work together to make a specific compound would all respond similarly to the same environmental conditions,” explained Jennifer Wisecaver, the postdoctoral fellow who conducted the study.

“These studies use advanced genomic technologies that can detect all the genes that plants turn on or off under specific conditions, such as high salinity, drought or the presence of a specific predator or pathogen,” said Wisecaver.

But identifying the networks of genes responsible for producing these small molecules from thousands of experiments measuring the activity of thousands of genes is no trivial matter. That’s where the Vanderbilt scientists stepped in — they devised a powerful algorithm capable of identifying the networks of genes that show the same behaviour (for example, all turning on) across these expression studies.

The result of all this number crunching from more than 22,000 gene expression studies was the identification of dozens, possibly even hundreds, of gene pathways that produce small metabolites, including several that previous experiments had identified. The findings are published in The Plant Cell journal.

The researchers argue that the results of their study show that this approach “is a novel, rich and largely untapped means for high-throughput discovery of the genetic basis and architecture of plant natural products”.

If that proves to be true, then it could help open the tap on new plant-based therapeutics for treating a broad range of conditions and diseases.

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