Lighting Up Plants’ Metabolisms for a Better Energy Future

New grant will use tagged nanoprobes for monitoring plants’ behavior to help researchers optimize biofuel production

By Ken Kingery

Researchers from disparate corners of Duke University are joining forces to peer into the most basic processes of life to discover what makes plants be all that they can be for our nation's energy future.

With the support of a three-year, $2 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE), researchers will literally shine light on the molecules that help increase plant growth into biofuels.

In the past, researchers have had to guess and check to discover what nutrients and environmental conditions different plants need to function at their highest levels of production. With the support of the new grant, they will be taking a more active approach by detecting relevant nucleic acids (mRNA, microRNA), using light-emitting nanoparticles.

These nanoparticles will tag nucleic acids and shine so that researchers can monitor and image the expression of genes relevant to plant biomass production at high spatial and temporal resolution. The knowledge provided by this nanoprobe technology will provide critical insights into novel ways to influence plant growth to increase biomass for renewable energy sources.

“These nanoprobes only light up when they find the molecule they’re designed to attach to,” said Tuan Vo-Dinh, the R. Eugene and Susie E. Goodson Professor of Biomedical Engineering, director of the Fitzpatrick Institute for Photonics at Duke and lead investigator of the project. “This will give us the submicron-scale resolution and real-time tracking capabilities needed to better understand the cellular factory mechanisms in plants. This will help improve production of biomass so that bioenergy sources of fuels may become a larger part of America’s drive toward energy independence.”

When scientists use plants to achieve a goal, they’re taking advantage of the plants’ molecular factories. By tracking the flow and activity of the biological cogs and gears that make these cellular systems work, researchers can investigate what variables make them most active and productive.

The project draws on many Duke strengths, including the Pratt School of Engineering’s work in photonics and nanobiotechnology and the Trinity School of Arts and Science’s research in molecular biology and plant genomics. Joining Vo-Dinh as co-investigators on the grant are Zhen-Ming Pei, associate professor of biology, and Tai-Ping Sun, professor of biology.

Also joining the team is Kenneth Kemner, molecular environmental science group leader at Argonne National Laboratory, making the team multi-institutional between academia and the Federal laboratory system as well as multidisciplinary.

“The proposed molecular nanoprobe technology represents a major innovation that has a strong transformative potential in the investigation of plant cells for biofuels,” said Vo-Dinh. “It will lead to a new type of multifunctional biosensing and imaging that will produce multiplex and quantitative outputs to help us better understand and improve the prediction of cellular function in plant growth critical to the nation’s bio-energy research programs. This project will be of great benefit to DOE biofuel research and development and has a great potential to be scalable and translatable to many other areas including medical and environment applications.”

The project will contribute to the continuing expansion of the Duke University Energy Initiative, a university-wide, interdisciplinary collaboration focused on advancing an accessible, affordable, reliable and clean energy system. The Initiative reaches across business, engineering, environment, law, policy, and the arts and sciences to educate tomorrow’s energy innovators, develop new solutions through research, and improve energy decisions by engaging business and government leaders.