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Real-Time Monitoring of Plant Metabolism with Dynamic 13C-Pulse Tracing





Berkeley Lab researcher Kolby Jardine has invented a versatile technology for rapid, in vivo tracking of carbon metabolism in plants using carbon-13 (13C) tracers with optical or mass spectrometry.

The technology involves timed infusions of liquid nutrients, such as pyruvate, which act as common building blocks of plant products. The nutrients have been labeled with 13C, a stable carbon isotope that serves as a tracer that can be detected in plant products through optical or mass spectrometry. Following each “pulse” of infused nutrients, the gases emitted by the living plant tissue are analyzed in real-time for emissions of 13C in both organic compounds as well as carbon dioxide. Incorporation of 13C into commercially important products including lipids, proteins, carbohydrates, biofuels, and pharmaceuticals could also be traced using mass spectrometry.

Metabolic pathways can be analyzed by systematically pulsing different 13C-labeled nutrients at different frequencies to study the speed at which certain plant products are produced and the size of their storage pools; and at different times of day under varied environmental conditions to determine their roles in the production process. The different “fates” of individual carbon atoms within the nutrient molecules can be tracked to distinct carbon pools. What emerges is a dynamic portrait of if, how, and when certain carbon-containing molecules are metabolized by plants, and consequently a more detailed understanding of how plants sequester, emit, or utilize carbon for various activities including respiration and biosynthesis of organic compounds over time. These laboratory observations from leaf-tissue can be correlated with field measurements from trees or entire ecosystems to provide an informed understanding of carbon metabolism in plants at multiple scales. The kinetics of 13C exchange can be exploited in plant breeding programs to improve plant productivity or to engineer efficient biosynthesis of commercially important compounds such as proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, biofuels, pharmaceuticals, or specialty chemicals.

Conventional techniques for measuring metabolite concentrations and carbon fluxes require labor-intensive accumulation of “snapshots” obtained through destructive extraction and subsequent analysis using liquid- or gas-chromatography. The Berkeley Lab system uniquely provides a technique to study these metabolic processes rapidly, efficiently, and in vivo.

DEVELOPMENT STAGE:  Bench scale prototype 

STATUS: Available for licensing or collaborative research.

Jardine, K., Wegener, F., Ishida, F., Abrell, L., van Haren, J., Werner, C., “Phytogenic Biosynthesis and Emission of Methyl Acetate,” Plant, Cell & Environment, August 13, 2013.

Jardine, K.,  Sommer, E., Saleska, S., Huxman, T., Harley, P., and Abrell, L., “Gas Phase Measurements of Pyruvic Acid and Its Volatile Metabolites,” Environ. Sci. Technol, 44 (2010), 2454-60.


Artificial Positive Feedback Loop for Increasing Production of a Biosynthetic Product in Specific Plant Tissues, EIB-2930, EIB-2996, EIB-3003, EIB-3085

Optical Sedimentation Recorder (OSR) for Tracking the Ocean’s Carbon Flux, IB-2196



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Last updated: 09/06/2013