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WSU scientists will use two new grants to study plant oil production

Closeup of Fendler's bladderpod plant.
Fendler’s bladderpod plant (photo By Patrick Alexander – iNaturalist, CC0).

Washington State University received more than $1.2 million in funding from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Foundational Knowledge of Plant Products program. The two U.S. Department of Agriculture grants will aid research in plant oils at WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry (IBC) over three years.

The USDA program supports projects that study the synthesis of valuable, plant-derived chemicals and ingredients used in foods, pharmaceuticals, and other natural products.

“Our unit has a great track record for funding important and beneficial research,” said Mark Lange, IBC interim director and primary investigator on one of the two grants. “There is always a limited amount of scientific funding available, and it’s great to know that the work we have done is valued and worthy of support.”

Lange’s project will further explore essential oils and mint plants. The other grant is headed by Philip Bates, IBC associate professor. Bates’ grant will investigate fatty acid production in a plant currently not grown commercially.

He and co-investigator Azeez Abdul, a post-doctoral researcher in Bates’ lab, will primarily explain how plants make fatty acids. Fatty acids accumulate in vegetable oils commonly used for cooking, but they can also be used to replace petroleum in lubricants, glues, plastics, and other products in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

Bates said they will focus on Fendler’s bladderpod, a plant native to the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. It’s not a commonly known plant, but produces valuable, unusual non-food fatty acids that could replace castor oil in the chemical industry.

Castor oil is made using castor beans, which are also used to make ricin. The castor plant is extremely poisonous, and its production is banned in the U.S. Currently, all castor oil in the country must be imported.

Bates hopes to increase the volume of fatty acids produced and the yield of bladderpod plants after studying the plant’s metabolism at the genetic level. He’s been working to better understand bladderpods for nearly a decade.

“We’re diving deeper now, hoping to modify the oil content to get more oil in the plant,” Bates said.

Oils are the theme of the USDA’s funding program, and Lange is taking a different tack by working on mint plants and essential oils.

Currently, spearmint and peppermint are the only mint plants grown in the U.S. on a large scale. Because these crops are sterile and can only reproduce through cuttings, peppermint is almost the same as it was hundreds of years ago, Lange said.

These mint plants are even more unusual because they have “parents” from three different plant species, not two. Lange has previously examined how this happened in nature centuries ago. While doing that work, he found that new types of oil could be produced.

The new grant allows Lange to look for ways to make the plants produce more novel oils, to explore their potential commercial uses, and to see how they produce the oils on a genetic level.

“We would love to tap into that and see if consumers would like more unusual oils,” Lange said. “They may not even be minty flavors; we could get something completely different.”

Lange has studied mint plants for decades and said this grant recognizes the data that he and his team have gathered over time. Now, both Lange and Bates are primarily concerned with learning something new.

“It’s why we do this: to find out how plants work,” Lange said. “We’re excited and grateful that the USDA thinks these projects are worth exploring.”

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