Technology that could enhance plants' seed oil content for food and animal feed applications has been licensed to BASF Plant Science under an exclusive commercial agreement with Michigan State University.
Following a long-term collaboration, a plant gene that regulates oil accumulation in plant seed was licensed to BASF Plant Science by MSU Technologies, Michigan State's technology transfer office. The gene is a transcription factor that produces a protein, dubbed Wrinkled1, which was isolated in the laboratory of professor of biochemistry and molecular biology Christoph Benning. It is being licensed by the plant biotechnology company for further development of enhanced soybean and canola varieties.
"The technology can be used in the development of new oil crops that have this transcription factor turned up to produce more oil in their seeds, and farmers can earn a bonus," MSU Technologies technology manager Thomas Herlache said. "This can improve production of vegetable oil in general, but also the oil used for biofuels."
The transcription factor can be used to turn gene expression up or down, like a tap on a faucet, he said. It was discovered in Benning's lab as a mutation causing wrinkly seeds of the Arabidopsis plant - a mustard species commonly used for genetic research.
"Photosynthesis produces sugars," said Benning, who is internationally recognized for his research into plant lipid metabolism. "The Wrinkled1 protein controls the conversion of sugars into fatty acids and thereby affects carbon partitioning between carbohydrates and lipids. Enhancing this process is a viable strategy to increase the oil content in seeds."
"The worldwide license applies to development of Wrinked1 in canola and soybean for the life of the patents, approximately 20 years," Herlache said. The license does not cover application of the technology to other widely used oil-producing plants such as sunflower, safflower, peanut and palm.
Genetically engineered oilseed crops including soybean and canola already have been developed to resist insects and the effects of herbicides, but industry analysts say huge potential remains untapped in boosting nutritional value, fuel content and other commercial prospects.
"Beyond the application in seeds as currently licensed by BASF Plant Science, we believe that MSU can use this transcription factor to convert a starch storage organ into an oil storage organ in plants such as rutabaga," Benning said. "Moreover, we are confident that we can use Wrinkled1 to produce oil in straw of different grasses to enhance their energy density.
"Thus," he said, "Wrinkled1 is an important tool in the engineering of novel biofuel crops and, in addition, the enhancement of existing seed oil crops."