Altered gene helps plants absorb more carbon dioxide, produce more useful compounds

Every day, plants around the world perform an invisible miracle. They take carbon dioxide from the air and, with the help of sunlight, turn it into countless chemicals essential to both plants and humans.

Some of these chemicals, known as aromatic compounds, are the starting material for a wealth of useful medications, such as aspirin and morphine. Yet, many of these chemicals come from fossil fuels because it’s hard to get plants to make enough of them to harvest economically. Others are essential human nutrients and can only be obtained through our food since our bodies are unable to make them.

In new work, scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison identified a way to release the brakes on plants’ production of aromatic amino acids by changing, or mutating, one set of genes. The genetic change also caused the plants to absorb 30% more carbon dioxide than normal, without any ill effect on the plants.

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Note: Dr. Hiroshi Maeda’s team just completed Discovery to Product’s Innovation to Market program and was also a recipient of their Draper TIF funding.