Featured Publication

Altering Plant Oils


While conducting studies to alter the placement of double bonds in fatty acids, a group of Lab researchers discovered a fundamental shift in an enzyme’s function that could help expand the toolbox for engineering biofuels and other plant-based oil products. Placing double bonds in different positions allows scientists to change the structure of the fatty acids to make products with different potential applications. The ultimate goal is to engineer designer plant oils to be used as biofuels and/or raw materials to reduce the use of petroleum.

To try to change the position of a double bond, the Brookhaven team modified a desaturase enzyme, changing three of the 363 amino acids in its protein sequence. But when they tested the modified enzyme and looked for the expected product, it wasn’t there. Instead of producing a shift in double-bond position, the enzyme modification had yielded three completely new products. This was a profound shift in enzyme function — like throwing a switch. Understanding the mechanism for this dramatic change and applying that knowledge could have enormous benefits for scientists attempting to engineer designer desaturase-like plant enzymes. This would allow them to tailor-make feedstocks with optimal properties, instead of relying on the properties of preexisting raw materials.


E. J. Whittle, A. E. Tremblay, P. H. Buist, and J. Shanklin, “Revealing the catalytic potential of an acyl-ACP desaturase: Tandem selective oxidation of saturated fatty acids,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2008, 105: 14738-14743

Last Modified: November 04, 2009