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‘Nature’ Publishes WSU Research Article

PULLMAN, Wash. — The Oct. 12 issue of Nature magazine features an article by Washington State University’s Thomas W. Okita, on research aimed at increasing the ability of plants to produce more protein.

Nature is a leading international science journal. Okita, a fellow in the WSU Institute of Biological Chemistry, is joined by authors Douglas G. Muench, University of Calgary, and Kenjirou Ozawa, National Institute of Agrobiological Resources, Kannondai, who collaborated on the study while at WSU.

Their research attempts to understand how cereal plants accumulate protein in their grain, a rich source of dietary protein. Okita hopes this research may help lead to the first major boost in grain yields since the green revolution of the 1960s.

Okita and his colleagues have shown that the cereal proteins are synthesized in very special locations in the cell. Some proteins are synthesized in one location while others are synthesized in another region. By having proteins synthesized at different places, the plant is able to store them more efficiently.

Normally plants store protein at specific locations in the cell by synthesizing the protein in one place and then transporting it to another location where it is stored. The Nature article describes research that shows that some proteins are stored in specific locations by transporting the genetic information called RNA to the site where the proteins are being accumulated. Once the RNA is ‘targeted’ it is translated into protein.

This discovery has lead to new insights on how proteins are stored in seeds and other plant tissues.

Work in Okita’s laboratory is part of a larger effort to increase the world’s food supply and to engineer plants as “green factories.” In addition to protein, the Okita laboratory also investigates the way plants make starch.

Although starch and protein are made by different processes, their levels are closely tied together for reasons yet to be identified.

But scientists now know that increasing starch also increases protein content.

“If this is done in cereal grains, then the increased starch will not only lead to better grain yields, but also to larger amounts of protein,” Okita says.

With grain prices in the basement, many might wonder why Okita and other agricultural scientists are working so hard to help farmers produce yet more food. But Ralph Cavalieri, WSU Agricultural Research director, says it is very important that they do so to keep up with increasing world population. Increased grain yields also will mean less dependence on fertilizers and other chemicals, and make it more economical to use plants as “green factories” to produce novel pharmaceutical and industrial proteins and compounds.

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