Alta.-based project seeks plants’ “chemist” genes

Alberta researchers plan to head up a new project to take inventory of the genetic sequences by which plants produce valuable compounds.

Doug Horner, the province’s minister of advanced education and technology, announced the project, called PhytoMetaSyn, on Wednesday at BIO International, a major biotechnology conference in Atlanta.

PhytoMetaSyn, short for Synthetic Biosystems for the Production of High Value Plant Metabolites, will be a four-year, $13.6 million project, to be backed by Alberta Advanced Education and Technology, Genome Alberta and a number of public- and private-sector research partners.

“Plants are the world’s best chemists,” said Peter Facchini, a plant biochemistry professor at the University of Calgary and the PhytoMetaSyn project leader, in a provincial release. “They can synthesize an immense diversity of molecules. We’re going to identify the genes from more than 75 plants that make those plants produce valuable compounds.”

“While the amazing biosynthetic ability of plants has long been recognized in traditional medicines, this new project aims to speed the process of discovery on the way to commercialization,” said Vincent Martin, an assistant professor in microbiology at Montreal’s Concordia University and the project’s co-leader.

Plants’ capacity for biosynthesis of useful compounds has in recent years been brought out beyond traditional medicine and into the medical and commercial application of pure plant metabolites, used in products such as pharmaceuticals, flavours, insecticides and other chemicals, the province said.

One goal of the project is to produce an inventory of the active genetic sequences that make a given plant produce “useful substances that are of great value to humanity,” the province said.

The project will also focus on assembling the various “chemist” genes into “enzymatic pathways” inside yeast cells to make valuable commercial products such as nutrients, flavourings or medicines, the province said.

The DNA sequences identified through this project would then be shared through databases for use in “large-scale” projects, the province added.

Out of the $13.6 million budgeted for this project, genetics research agency Genome Canada will put up $6.4 million, while the province will kick in $1.9 million through Genome Alberta and other genome centres will put up $2.2 million.

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