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US NSF and Japan Science and Technology Agency issue $12M in joint metabolomics research awards; increased biofuel production and reduced pesticide use

Four joint United States and Japanese research teams have been awarded funding totaling about $12 million (about ¥960 million) under the new “Metabolomics for a Low Carbon Society” program, the first to be fully jointly coordinated by the two agencies. The specific goals are to develop new techniques to increase the production of renewable biofuel and reduce pesticide use.

These techniques will be based on studies of metabolites—chemical compounds that are produced in all living cells and are integral to a wide range of important and life-sustaining biological processes, including the ability of plants to fight disease-causing pests and the ability of photosynthetic algae to produce biofuel.

Metabolomics has exciting applications in varied fields, including environmental science, synthetic biology, medicine and predictive modeling of plant, algal and microbial systems.

However, scientists currently can identify and characterize the properties of only a small fraction of the 10,000 to 15,000 metabolites that exist in any given plant. Nevertheless, an improved ability to identify and characterize these pivotal compounds could lead to the development of entirely new and potentially breakthrough approaches for increasing biofuel production and reducing pesticide use.

Each project will last three years, but could be extended for another two years based on the results of an evaluation that will be conducted during the third year of the project.

The four new Metabolomics for a Low Carbon Society projects will capitalize on the technical expertise and research infrastructures of both the United States and Japan, and to promote collaborative research between scientists in the two countries.

To this end, NSF and JST required all proposals for funding to include at least one US researcher and one Japanese researcher, and NSF and JST jointly reviewed all submitted proposals.

Although each of the four funded trans-Pacific research projects addresses a unique research problem, these projects collectively address widespread challenges underlying metabolomics in all of its applications. These challenges include the pressing need to identify more metabolites and to develop more flexible and sophisticated metabolomics infrastructures, including comprehensive databases of species-dependent metabolites. By addressing these widespread problems, results of the four funded projects will likely broadly advance the entire field.

These four new research projects are as follows:

  • Research led by Lloyd W. Sumner of The Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation and Kazuki Saito of the RIKEN Plant Science Center. This project will leverage advanced instrumentation to identify and characterize important metabolites related to biomass and oil production in plants. Also, the broad metabolic effects of gene-level changes affecting plant cell walls and oil synthesis will be identified. Through these advances, the project will inform efforts to improve plant cell wall material fermentability, produce energy-rich plant oils and provide resources for other metabolomics researchers.

  • Research led by Oliver Fiehn of the University of California at Davis and Masanori Arita of the University of Tokyo. This project will improve methods to identify metabolites used by photosynthetic algae to produce biofuel—information that will be used to boost the manufacturing of biofuel. Project activities include advancing techniques in mass spectrometry and developing a new, integrated mass spectrometry database that will be freely accessible to the research community.

  • Research led by James Liao of the University of California, Los Angeles and Eiichiro Fukusaki of Osaka University. Through this study, photosynthetic bacteria will be genetically engineered to maximize butanol production based on comprehensive metabolic analyses of bacteria and yeast and on computational modeling.

  • Research led by Georg Jander of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research in New York and Yutaka Okumoto of Kyoto University. Up to 30% of agricultural productivity is lost to insects and disease. Moreover, production costs soar every time a tractor drives over a field to apply pesticides. This project will help reduce such losses and costs by supporting the development of technologies that will better define natural disease-fighting processes in plants. As part of this effort, protective metabolites that stop attacks by insects and other disease-causing organisms in plants and genes responsible for producing these metabolites will be identified.

Joint funding for Metabolomics for a Low Carbon Society is operated by NSF under its Division of Integrative Organismal Systems, Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences and Division of Biological Infrastructure, and is operated by JST under its Strategic International Collaborative Research Program (SICORP).


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