Innovators of the Year

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The 2018 Innovators of the Year are Dr. Christoph Benning & Dr. John Ohlrogge, for their work in understanding how plants accumulate oil, via WRINKLED1 genetic research.  Their key discovery, WRINKLED1 is the name for a ubiquitous regulator in oil-accumulating plant tissues.  Many plant species accumulate vegetable oil in their seeds as a major storage component, which provides carbon and energy for seedling development. These oils are a staple in the human diet and are increasingly important as renewable feed stocks for industry.

WRINKLED1 is a key transcription factor in the regulation of plant oil synthesis in seed and non-seed tissues. Transcription factors are like switches that turn biochemical pathways on (or off) in cells. Currently, a wealth of information supports the pivotal role of WRINKLED1 (WRI1) in the regulation of plant seed oil biosynthesis. But the structural features of WRI1 important for its function are not well understood. Recent research identified ways to increase the stability of the WRI1 protein. Expressing the enhanced WRI1 in developing seeds allows the seeds to store much more vegetable oil which is why their research has been so important.

Dr. Christoph Benning is MSU Foundation Professor and Director of the Plant Research Laboratory at MSU. Research in the Benning laboratory focuses on lipid metabolism in photosynthetic organisms. The lab is involved in the design of novel biofuel plants with enhanced energy density in their vegetative tissues through the induction of storage oil accumulation.

Dr. John Ohlrogge is Professor Emeritus of Plant Biology and University Distinguished Professor at MSU. The long term goal of the Ohlrogge lab is to understand how plants control the activity of fatty acid synthesis and lipid metabolism pathways and how their products are channeled into diverse roles and locations within or outside the plant cell.