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New research into plant colours sheds light on antioxidants

3 October 2007

Scientists have made an important advance in understanding the genetic processes that give flowers, leaves and plants their bright colours. The knowledge could lead to a range of benefits, including better understanding of the cancer-fighting properties of plant pigments and new, natural food colourings. The research is highlighted in the new issue of Business from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The scientists, at the John Innes Centre and Institute of Food Research in Norwich, have pinpointed a key group of enzymes involved in the production of plant pigments. The pigments, called anthocyanins, are what give some plants the vivid colours that they use to attract insects and foraging animals. They also give plants protection against environmental stresses and disease. Hundreds of different anthocyanins exist in nature, all with slightly different chemical compositions. The international research team, supported by BBSRC, identified the genes responsible for the enzymes which chemically modify anthocyanins to alter their properties.

Prof Cathie Martin at the John Innes Centre who co-led the project explains: “Using a new strategy, we conducted biochemical studies on the brassica plant Arabidopsis. We found that a small number of genes responsible for the enzymes that chemically modify anthocyanins were ‘switched on’ when the plants were making anthocyanins in response to stress.

“When we transferred these genes to a tobacco plant, the colour of the tobacco flowers changed slightly, confirming that these genes, and the enzymes that they produce, were indeed responsible for modifying anthocyanins.

“What’s more, these anthocyanins that had been modified by the enzymes were more stable than those that hadn’t. This is significant because stabilised anthocyanins could be used as natural food colourants to replace many artificial colours used in various foods. This improved understanding of the genetics of anthocyanins also provides a better platform for studying their antioxidant properties, important in the fight against cancer, cardiovascular disease and age-related degeneration.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

The research described feature in the October 2007 issue of Business, the quarterly research highlights magazine of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The research was led by Prof Cathie Martin at the John Innes Centre and Dr Tony Michael at the Institute of Food Research.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About the John Innes Centre

The John Innes Centre (JIC), Norwich, UK is an independent, world-leading research centre in plant and microbial sciences with over 800 staff. JIC carries out high quality fundamental, strategic and applied research to understand how plants and microbes work at the molecular, cellular and genetic levels. The JIC also trains scientists and students, collaborates with many other research laboratories and communicates its science to end-users and the general public. The JIC is grant-aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. http://www.jic.ac.uk

About the Institute of Food Research

The mission of the Institute of Food Research (IFR) is to undertake international quality scientific research relevant to food and human health and to work in partnership with others to provide underpinning science for consumers, policy makers, the food industry and academia. It is a company limited by guarantee, with charitable status, grant aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council http://www.ifr.ac.uk

External contact

Professor Cathie Martin, John Innes Centre

tel: 01603 450279

Dr Tony Michael, Institute of Food Research

tel: 01603 255356

Dr Jie Luo, John Innes Centre

tel: 01603 450324

Zoe Dunford, John Innes Centre/Institute for Food Research Press Office

tel: 01603 255111

Andrew Chapple, John Innes Centre/Institute for Food Research Press Office

tel: 01603 251490

Contact

Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299
fax: 01793 413382

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382