WSU scientists studying plant systems to increase understanding of oil production

Oil is a necessary source of energy and materials for the modern world, but petroleum won’t last forever. Replacing it with plant oil is currently the best solution, but we need a large amount, and can’t replace agricultural land to grow it.

A green blob vaguely resembling a plant on a black background.
Arabidopsis is the model plant researchers will study to find the metabolic properties plants use to make oil.

Washington State University scientists are spearheading a new project, funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, to figure out how to make plants produce more oil and produce oils of different fatty acid compositions. It’s a complex process.

“Most plants we eat have five or six kinds of fatty acids,” said Phil Bates, an associate professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry (IBC). “But there are over 450 fatty acid structures in the various uses of industrial oil. We need to figure out how to get more of those structures out of plants in a large scale.”

Industries and products requiring oil include plastics, lubricants, and glues.

The new NSF grant, funded at $1.2 million over three years, will allow researchers to look at the incredibly complex chemical reactions plants use to make oil and how to control the fatty acid composition of the oil.

The project is a continuation of research Bates and his colleagues have been working on for over a decade. One new aspect of this grant is the addition of a cell biology expert to help figure out the cellular organization of plants’ oil production processes.

Formal portrait of Phil Bates with scientific equipment in the background.
Phil Bates

“Traditionally, cells were seen as mostly bags filled with enzymes,” said Andrei Smertenko, a cell biologist and fellow IBC associate professor. “That’s not correct. Different enzymes have specific locations, and we’re trying to figure out how changing those locations impacts oil production. The localization of enzymes in cells can contribute to oil production and which types of oils are produced.”

The NSF project is more focused on understanding basic science than finding an immediate application for the findings, Bates said. But understanding is often the first step to making a discovery that can have tremendous impact.

“We want to produce plants that make more oil,” Bates said. “But to do that, you must understand the systems plants use to make it. Once we figure that out, we can get more oil and control its fatty acid composition.”

The NSF is investing in that discovery. And the grant came about in large part because of an investment made by the state of Washington. This project wouldn’t have happened before the Plant Sciences Building, funded by the state legislature, was built on the WSU Pullman campus.

“Collaboration is one of the new building’s perks,” Smertenko said. “Phil and I bump into each other regularly while getting coffee and we kept talking about the idea of working together. This project is an outcome of having the new building.”

Bates agreed with that assessment.

“We didn’t see each other in our old building; it was full of individual labs that we rarely left,” Bates said. “It’s unusual for a biochemist like me to work on a project with a cellular biologist, but this project meets at the cutting edge of both fields. The open labs allowed for this collaboration.”

In addition to each other, Bates and Smertenko are also working with three other collaborators: two researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and one at the University of Missouri.