Cocaine, nicotine, capsaicin--these are just three familiar examples of the hundreds of thousands of small molecules (also called specialized or secondary metabolites) that plants use as chemical ammunition to protect themselves from predation. Unfortunately, identifying the networks of genes that plants use to make these biologically active compounds, which are the source of many of the drugs that people use and abuse daily, has vexed scientists for years, hindering efforts to tap this vast pharmacopeia to produce new and improved therapeutics. Now, Vanderbilt University geneticists think they have come up with an effective and powerful new way for identifying these elusive gene networks, which typically consist of a handful to dozens of different genes, that may overcome this road block. "Plants synthesize massive numbers of bioproducts that are of benefit to society. This team has revolutionized the potential to uncover these natural bioproducts and understand how they are synthesized," said Anne Sylvester, Ph.D., Program Director in the National Science Foundation's Biological Sciences Directorate, which funded the research. The revolutionary new approach is based on the well-established observation that plants produce these compounds in response to specific environmental conditions. "We hypothesized that the genes within a network that work together to make a specific compound would all respond similarly to the same environmental conditions," explained Jennifer Wisecaver, Ph.D., the post-doctoral fellow who conducted the study. To test this hypothesis, Dr.
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