The collective array of known plants contain hundreds of thousands of small molecules
(secondary metabolites), which plants use as a type of chemical ammunition to protect themselves from predation. Many of these molecules are known to have properties that can be used as medicines and it probably stands that many more yet to be identified molecules can be used to produce a new generation of drug products. Moreover, the decreasing efficacy of synthetic drugs and the increasing contraindications of their usage make the usage of natural drugs topical again.
Identifying new biologically active molecules of interest has been hindered by current technologies, which are not capable to effectively screening plants. This is set to change due to a new approach developed by geneticists from Vanderbilt University. This approach centers on identifying gene networks which generally prove elusive to investigators.
The new approach is based on that plants produce certain biological compounds of interest in response to specific environmental conditions. The team who developed this new approach is led by Anne Sylvester and Jennifer Wisecaver. In a research note, Dr. Wisecaver stated
: “We hypothesized that the genes within a network that work together to make a specific compound would all respond similarly to the same environmental conditions.”
To test out the model, Dr. Wisecaver used the Vanderbilt supercomputer located the Advanced Computing Center for Research & Education. The computer was used to analyze data from over 22,000 gene expression studies performed on eight different model plant species. The outcome was a means to assess all of the genes that plants turn on or off under specific conditions. Examples of such environmental conditions included high salinity, conditions of drought, or in response to a specific pathogen.
Using this information the Vanderbilt scientists devised a new algorithm that is capable of identifying the networks of genes that show the same behavior. This will allow for more plants to be assessed for biologically useful compounds far more quickly. The new method should open the tap on new plant-based therapeutics.
The study has been reported to the publication The Plant Cell
. The associated article is titled “A Global Co-expression Network Approach for Connecting Genes to Specialized Metabolic Pathways in Plants.”