'Orphan gene' may have potential to boost protein value of crops

November 16, 2015, Iowa State University
Eve Syrkin Wurtele, left, and Ling Li, right, have spent years studying the potential of a gene found only in a single plant species that governs protein content. Credit: Christopher Gannon

A recently published study from two Iowa State University scientists shows that a gene found only in a single plant species can increase protein content when introduced into staple crops.

The research has implications for a wide array of crops, especially for staples grown in the developing world, where sufficient sources of protein are sometimes limited.

"We've found that introducing this gene to plants such as corn, rice and soybean increases protein without affecting yields," said Ling Li, an adjunct assistant professor of genetics, development and cell biology.

Li has worked for years with Eve Syrkin Wurtele, a professor of genetics, development and , on a gene they discovered in 2004 that appears only in Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant. Their studies of this gene, called QQS, have yielded several publications in peer-reviewed academic journals, a U.S. patent and multiple pending patents.

Li and Wurtele refer to QQS as an "orphan gene" because it's not present in the genome of any other organism.

The gene regulates the in Arabidopsis seeds and leaves, so Li and Wurtele wondered what would happen if they used transgenic technology to introduce the gene to other plants. Could it lead to increased protein in plants that humans commonly eat?

In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers show that the orphan gene works much the same way in rice, corn and soybeans. That's good news for parts of the world where protein-rich foods are scarce, Li said.

Protein deficiency leads to developmental problems in children, but protein-rich plants may present a solution, Wurtele said.

"Most of the world relies on plants as a major protein resource," Li said. "And protein that comes from animal sources requires more water, energy and resources to produce, so a diet that relies more on protein-heavy plants is more sustainable."

Getting such transgenic crops into the global market requires years of research, safety testing and millions of dollars, Wurtele said. Accordingly, the researchers are also looking at non-transgenic avenues to produce similar results.

The key to such avenues may revolve around the protein to which the orphan gene binds, known as NF-YC4. That particular protein is present in all plants and animals, so it can be altered in crop species without resorting to a transgenic approach, Li said.

By overexpressing, or producing more of, the NF-YC4 gene in , the researchers can increase the value of without using transgenes, which could save time and costs in the regulatory process, Li said.

Scientists are still only beginning to grasp how orphan genes work and the value they represent, she said. Wurtele said she expects more scientists to "adopt" orphan genes in the years ahead to see what they're capable of.

"This is one orphan gene that we've shown has big potential," Wurtele said. "And we believe there will be many more discoveries related to other orphan genes in the future."

Explore further: Starch-controlling gene fuels more protein in soybean plants

More information: L. Li et al. QQS orphan gene regulates carbon and nitrogen partitioning across species via NF-YC interactions, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2015). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1514670112

Related Stories

Starch-controlling gene fuels protein

May 4, 2012

Researchers from Iowa State University (ISU) have introduced a newly discovered gene, found only in Arabidopsis thaliana plants, into soybean plants and increased the amount of protein in the soybean seeds by 30 to 60 percent.

Aluminum tolerance fix could open arable land

April 30, 2014

(Phys.org) —With as much as 40 percent of the world's potentially arable land unusable due to aluminum toxicity, a solution may be near: Cornell agricultural scientists report that a gene – and the protein it expresses ...

Artificial control of starch synthesis in plants

March 17, 2015

A research group is the first in the world to identify the gene that controls starch synthesis in plants. Their study, entitled "CO2 Responsive CCT protein, CRCT Is a Positive Regulator of Starch Synthesis in Vegetative Organs ...

How plant cell compartments 'chat' with each other

November 4, 2015

A team of researchers led by scientists from the University of Bonn has discovered a basis of communication in plant cells: The "MICU" protein controls the calcium ion concentration in the cellular power stations. Using these ...

Recommended for you

A reference catalog for the rumen microbiome

March 19, 2018

The digestive tracts of ruminant (cud-chewing) animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats convert lignocellulosic plant matter to short-chain fatty acids used for nourishment with unparalleled efficiency, thanks to the activity ...

Looking beyond genes to explain blood cells' fates

March 19, 2018

Scientists often talk about cell fate and commitment in terms of mechanisms that control gene expression (transcription factors, chromatin remodeling, etc.). But by studying Diamond-Blackfan anemia (DBA), rare genetic blood ...

Drawing inspiration from plants and animals to restore tissue

March 19, 2018

Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed new wound dressings that dramatically accelerate healing ...

Researchers measure gene activity in single cells

March 16, 2018

For biologists, a single cell is a world of its own: It can form a harmonious part of a tissue, or go rogue and take on a diseased state, like cancer. But biologists have long struggled to identify and track the many different ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Nov 16, 2015
First we must overcome the ignorant anti-GMO hysteria.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 16, 2015
Or we can eat gmo free supplements. Many manufacturers has a wide variety of gmo free proteins. Myprotein also has it's own gmo free whey protein range. The goods news is that you can use discount codes and buy them at very low price. For more information read the dedicated blog: myproteindiscountcodes.co.uk

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.