Earth & Environment - Posted by Tom Oswald-Michigan State on Monday, July 2, 2012 8:35 - 2 Comments
Plants hold keys to human survival, say scientists
MICHIGAN STATE (US) — More research on plant metabolism, and by a broader group of scientists, may protect humans against future challenges.
In a review published in Science, two scientists discuss why if humans are to survive as a species, we must turn more to plants for any number of valuable lessons.
Straight from the Source
“Metabolism of plants provides humans with fiber, fuel, food, and therapeutics,” says Robert Last, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Michigan State University.
“As the human population grows and nonrenewable energy sources diminish, we need to rely increasingly on plants and to increase the sustainability of agriculture.”
Last and co-author Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute of Science point out that despite decades of plant genetic engineering, there are relatively few types of commercial products originating from this body of work.
“This is in part because we do not understand enough about the vastly complex set of metabolic reactions that plants employ,” Last says. “It’s like designing and building a bridge armed only with satellite images of existing bridges.”
The authors say that perhaps the best approach is to bring together a variety of disciplines—not just plant scientists—to study how plants operate.
They also suggest looking hard at what brought plants to the place they are today—evolution.
“We think that understanding design principles of plant metabolism will be aided by considering how hundreds of millions of years of evolution has led to well-conserved examples of metabolic pathways,” Last says.
One of the amazing aspects of plant metabolism is that it must continuously strike a balance between evolving to meet an ever-changing environment while maintaining the internal stability needed to carry on life as it knows it.
In addition, the authors point out that plants experiment with specialized (also called secondary) metabolism, which can produce novel chemicals that are used to defend against pathogens and herbivores.
“Humans benefit from this ‘arms race’ because some of these compounds have important therapeutic properties,” Last says.
“Unfortunately, design principles are not so well studied in these rapidly evolving metabolic processes. Using new approaches, including considering optimality principles, will lead to advances in medicinal chemistry as well as creating more and healthier food.”
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