A- A A+

Synthetic Biosystems for the Production of High Value Plant Metabolites


The objective of the  PhytoMetaSyn Project is to determine the metabolic pathways of selected plants by which the plants produce high value added metabolites and reproduce these pathways in the common yeast cell such that the yeast cells produce the same compounds.


It has been said that plants are the world's best chemists.  Through biosynthetic pathways incorporating genes and enzymes, they can synthesize a immense diversity of molecules.  These molecules are referred to as metabolites, as they are a result of the metabolic processes of the plants.   These metabolites have been used as traditional medicines and  the commercial potential of these metabolites has recently been recognized.  Commercial applications of the metabolites include pharmaceuticals (analgesics, cough suppressants anticancer drugs), flavouring agents, insecticides, fragrances and industrial applications such as resins. The production of these metabolites by plants however, has limited opportunities for commercialization given the quantities of metabolites produced by the plants,  challenges in harvesting the plants and extracting the desired metabolite and the time required for plant growth. If however, the pathways resulting in the production of these metabolites in plants could be transferred to other organisms,  the potential for the commercialization of these high value metabolites may be possible.



Researchers will analyze the genetic material of the plants using ultra-high-throughput DNA sequencing to determine specific gene sequences and select candidate or targeted genes which play a key role in the metabolic pathways.  The metabolites which the plants produce will be analysed using a variety of mass spectrometry technologies to determine the chemical products that are synthesized under the direction of the genes.   The genes and enzymes will form a "parts catalogue" which will be used in plug and play genomics to engineer and reconstruct  the metabolic pathways of the plants in yeast cells such that they produce the same metabolites.   

The nature of the research being undertaken is leading edge and the implications of success are significant.  The potential commercial opportunites and the economic benfits carry with them questions regarding the research process itself - that is, modifying living cells to perform functions twhich they would otherwise not perform.  To address this aspect of the project,  in addition to the scientific objectives of the project, there is a GE3LS research component that will investigate the economical, environmental, ethical, legal and societal implictions of engineering yeast cells such that they perform the metabolic functions previously performed by plants.  


The research team encompasses thirteen researchers located in seven institutions across Canada who collectively have expertise in  plant biochemistry, genomics, microbial metabolic engineering and synthetic biology.   The project will be conducted over a four year period commencing October 1, 2009.   The project budget is  $13.6 million, with funding provided by the Government of Canada, provincial governments and  industry.  


The key deliverables  of the project are:

1.  A public resource of genomic and metabolic information for 75 plants that produce  a number of high-value natural products;

2.  Yeast strains that produce high-value natural plant products;

3.  A catalogue of enzymes for use in synthetic biology applications;

4.  Creation of functional-genomics methods for describing metabolic pathways and identifying unknown biosynthetic genes from plants; and,

5.  An analysis of socioeconomic, enviromnetal legal and ethical impacts related to microbial metabolic engineering and synthetic biology.