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Discovery of New Molecular Tools for Biosynthesis

by Phillip Lee Williams



Most people know pectin as a common household gelling agent in making jams and jellies, but it also has anti-cancer properties and a role in important biological functions including plant growth and development and defense against disease. For the first time, scientists have a way to explore these aspects, thanks to Debra Mohnen, a University of Georgia biochemist and molecular biologist, and her research team, who describe the new tool in a paper published in a March issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We know pectins are required for normal plant growth and development,” said Mohnen, “but to really understand pectin function, we need to be able to manipulate the enzymes and genes that are involved in pectin production.”

In what has been described as a “crucial breakthrough in pectin biosynthesis,” Mohnen and her team discovered a gene that encodes a protein involved in making pectin. This protein will be a powerful molecular tool that will help researchers understand—and potentially manipulate—pectins.

This new ability could result in genetically altered pectins that could improve plants’ ability to fight disease and new pectins that could be specifically targeted to fight cancers in humans. While not the breakthrough that will allow immediate manipulation of all aspects of the production process, it is, said one of the researchers involved, “the first word of the Rosetta Stone that will show us the blueprint for pectin biosynthesis.”

This first step may well be a crucial one in elucidating pectin biosynthetic genes, but the research is still at the bottom rung of the ladder, said Michael Hahn, a UGA plant biologist associated with the research team. For the first time, though, the team has genetic tools that can help identify multiple genes that code for enzymes involved in pectin synthesis.

“We could, for instance, modify a pectic structure to get a specific biological effect,” said Mohnen. “The ability to modify pectin synthesis could have huge ramifications.”

Primary long-term support for the research has come from the U. S. Department of Agriculture, but the researchers also received support from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

For more information, contact Debra Mohnen at


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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