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Sept. 16, 2016

‘Dialing in the lipidome’ for human health, environmental sustainability

In the ongoing quest for healthier lifestyles and environmental sustainability, one of the biggest solutions might also be one of the tiniest. Decades of cutting-edge research at Michigan State University on lipids – small, naturally occurring molecules that make up oils, fats and waxes – has scientists excited about recent advancements and the untapped potential of these microscopic workhorses.

“There’s a long history of plant lipid research at MSU,” said MSU Foundation Professor Christoph Benning, director of MSU’s Plant Research Laboratory. “But it takes a long time to do – often 20 years or more – for some of our recent advancements. We hope we can accelerate our progress through basic research.”

In an invited contribution to a special issue of Science Magazine, Benning and MSU biochemist Patrick Horn highlight recent advancements in lipid research at MSU and beyond – work that could have wide-ranging applications in both human wellbeing and environmental sustainability.

According to Benning and Horn, lipids derived from plant and algal photosynthesis constitute much of human daily caloric intake and provide the basis for high-energy bio products, chemicals with “countless” applications, and food supplements. As a result of progress in basic research on lipid metabolism, in combination with advances in synthetic biology, scientists “can now tailor plant lipids for desirable biological, physical and chemical properties.”

“It’s like a phone dial – plant engineers are now able to dial in different fatty acids and change the properties of lipids to be more nutritional or more efficient,” Benning said. “We can engineer it.”

The applications for this research into the nature of the lipidome – the total presence of lipids in a cell – are wide-ranging, with direct applications in biofuels, cancer research and even the sustainable production of fish oils.

“Why not make fish oils in plants? This wouldn’t require us to harvest copious amounts of marine resources,” Benning said. “We could save the fish in the oceans by making these fish oils on land. This touches both human health and the environment.”

Collaborators in the research covered by Benning and Horn’s article include MSU scientists Bjoern Hamberger, Barb Sears, John Ohlrogge and Eva Farre among many others.

According to Benning, the MSU Plant Research Laboratory and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center have played central roles in the ongoing advancements in this lipid research.

“There’s a rich history of this type of research here at MSU,” Benning said.