New technology eliminates plant toxins

Oilseed rape plants produce toxic glucosinolates to defend themselves against potential enemies, such as herbivorous pests and diseases. Due to the content of toxins, farmers can only use limited quantities of the protein-rich rapeseed for pig and chicken feed. However, a team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen have now developed a method to hinder unwanted toxins from entering the edible parts of the plant. The breakthrough has been published in the scientific journal Nature.

“We have developed an entirely new technology that we call 'transport engineering'. It can be used to eliminate unwanted substances from the edible parts of crops,” says Professor Barbara Ann Halkier, head of the Center of Excellence for Dynamic Molecular Interactions (DynaMo) at the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty of Science.

The oilseed rape plant is but one example of a crop whose use will be greatly enhanced thanks to the new technology. Unlike the healthy glucosinolates found in broccoli, oilseed rape additionally produces a glucosinolate that is harmful to most animals when consumed in larger amounts.

This means that protein-rich rapeseed cake produced using the byproduct of rapeseeds pressed for oil, can only be used in limited quantities for pig and chicken feed.

“We managed to find two proteins that transport glucosinolates into the seeds of the thale cress plant, a close relative of the oilseed rape. When we subsequently produced thale cress without these two proteins, the remarkable result was that their seeds were completely free of glucosinolates and thus suitable for feed,” says Halkier.

The findings are the outcome of 16 years of basic research, an excellent example of how basic research can result in new discoveries of direct use to society.

Read the full story on the website of the University of Copenhagen.

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