DOE Pulse
  • Number 343  |
  • August 8, 2011

Modeling plant metabolism to optimize oil production

Developing plant embryos.

Developing plant embryos.

Scientists at DOE’s Brookhaven Lab have developed a computational model for analyzing the metabolic processes in rapeseed plants — particularly those related to the production of oils in their seeds. Their goal is to find ways to optimize the production of plant oils that have widespread potential as renewable resources for fuel and industrial chemicals.

Plant seed oil represents the most energy-dense form of biologically stored sunlight, and its production is controlled, in part, by the metabolic processes within developing seeds. Prior efforts to monitor these processes have been compared to assessing traffic flow on roads in the United States by measuring traffic flow only on the major highways. The new model — which includes 572 biochemical reactions that play a role in the seed's central metabolism and/or seed oil production, and incorporates information on how those reactions are grouped together and interact — aims to get a more detailed view.

This large-scale model is a much more realistic network, like a map that represents almost every street, with computational simulations to predict what’s going on. Scientists can use it to simulate complicated metabolic processes under varying conditions — for example, changes in oil production or the formation of oil precursors in response to changes in available nutrients, light conditions, and other variables. The scientists can now try to simulate the effect of “road blocks” or where to add new roads to most effectively eliminate traffic congestion on the path to biofuel production.

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[Karen McNulty Walsh, 631.344.8350,]