Research laboratory at the forefront of the science of metabolomics

A new $1.8 million research laboratory will catapult Iowa State University to the forefront of the science of metabolomics.

The W.M. Keck Metabolomics Research Laboratory, already in operation and unlocking discoveries, will be dedicated at 2 p.m., Thursday, June 3, in the atrium of the Molecular Biology Building.

The dedication is being held in conjunction with the Third International Congress on Plant Metabolomics hosted by Iowa State, June 3-6.

Dedication speakers will be Benjamin Allen, vice president for academic affairs and provost; Stephen Howell, director of the Plant Sciences Institute; Basil Nikolau, director of the Center for Designer Crops; and Ann Perera, a Ph.D. candidate and laboratory manager. Refreshments, laboratory tours and demonstrations will follow the brief program.

The laboratory is named in honor of the W. M. Keck Foundation, Los Angeles. In 2001, the foundation awarded a $1 million grant for the laboratory to the Center for Designer Crops, a center of Iowa State's Plant Sciences Institute. The university provided $1.3 million, which included $800,000 for the laboratory and equipment, and $500,000 to hire two new faculty who are plant biochemists.

The W.M. Keck Metabolomics Research Laboratory is designed to provide biologists state-of-the-art analytical capabilities for deciphering the underlying molecular processes that determine how organisms grow and develop.

Metabolomics uses sophisticated analytical instruments to accurately measure, en masse, the biochemicals (metabolites) that make up an organism. Metabolites are the building blocks of all biological products, including those important to agriculture like oils and sugars. Metabolism--the complex network of chemical reactions that converts metabolites to final products--determines the organism's genetic blueprint (genome). Metabolomics has the potential of revealing how the genome of an organism controls and regulates the metabolism that maintains biological form and function

The new laboratory is equipped with six instruments that allow scientists to analyze thousands of metabolites in order to understand gene function more clearly.

"A detailed understanding of how genes function to regulate biological processes in plants and crops holds great promise for agriculture," Nikolau said. "Metabolomics research should lead to improvements in agricultural production practices that result in foods and animal feeds that have better nutritional quality and the development of crop-based, biorenewable sources of environmentally friendly industrial chemicals."

The grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation made it possible for Iowa State to purchase advanced instruments that had to be customized to meet Iowa State's specifications, Nikolau said.

The laboratory is home to highly sophisticated separation and detection equipment that analyze a wide variety of metabolites. The instruments make it possible for researchers to conduct high-throughput microanalysis of metabolites in plant tissues.

Research conducted in the laboratory already is revealing the secrets of how corn and soybeans make valuable agricultural products. Examples include the following.

  • Alan Myers led an internationally recognized research team that discovered how starch is produced in corn kernels. Their discoveries revealed for the first time that genes previously thought to be unimportant in starch biosynthesis are, in fact, an integral part of the biosynthetic process. Myers is professor and chair of biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology.
  • Eve Wurtele's team discovered new phytochemicals in Echinacea (purple coneflower) plants. These phytochemicals may contribute to the efficacy of Echinacea as a botanical supplement in boosting the human immune system. Wurtele is a professor of genetics, development and cell biology.
  • Nikolau's research team discovered new metabolic pathways important in establishing the outer barrier that plants use for protection from the environment. This barrier, called the cuticle, is important in the protection of crops from dehydration during drought, and from invasion by fungal and bacterial pests.

"Thanks to the W.M. Keck Foundation, the laboratory will help establish Iowa State as a leader in basic research in plant and crop metabolomics," Nikolau said.

Based in Los Angeles, the W.M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W.M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The Foundation's grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the area of medical research, science and engineering. More information is available at

The W.M. Keck Foundation grant was made through the ISU Foundation--a private, non-profit corporation dedicated to securing and stewarding gifts and grants that benefit Iowa State University.

The Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State University is dedicated to becoming one of the world's leading plant science research institutes. More than 200 faculty from the College of Agriculture, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the College of Family and Consumer Sciences and the College of Engineering conduct research in nine centers of the institute. They seek fundamental knowledge about plant systems to help feed the growing world population, strengthen human health and nutrition, improve crop quality and yield, foster environmental sustainability and expand the uses of plants for biobased products and bioenergy. The Plant Sciences Institute supports the training of students for exciting career opportunities, and promotes new technologies to aid in the economic development of agriculture and industry throughout the state. The institute is supported through public and private funding.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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