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Exclusive interview

Sharing broccoli’s goodness with other plants

By Stephen Daniells , 18-Dec-2008
Last updated on 29-Jan-2009 at 17:59 GMT2009-01-29T17:59:17Z

Everyone knows that broccoli is good for you, and advances in transgenic plant engineering by Danish researchers may soon see that goodness replicated in other plants.

Everyone knows that broccoli is good for you, and advances in transgenic plant engineering by Danish researchers may soon see that goodness replicated in other plants.

In an exclusive interview with, Barbara Ann Halkier from the Faculty of Life Sciences, the University of Copenhagen, and recipient of this year’s Danisco Award, said that her group is working towards production of glucosinolates, a family of compounds found in cruciferous plants like broccoli, in non-glucosinolate-producing plant species.

Glucosinolates have been receiving increasing attention due to their reported anti-cancer benefits. But there are over 30 such compounds in broccoli, said Dr Halkier, and her work is aimed at taking out the pathways for the good glucosinolates and expressing them in microorganisms like yeast and maybe other fungi.

“We are working towards introducing the pathway in tobacco,” she said. “If successful, we will also try to make the transfer into microorganisms.”

The transgenic microorganism could then provide a rich source of these substances for dietary supplements, she added.

Breakthrough science

As with many families of compounds, not all glucosinolates are beneficial. Indeed, some have reportedly undesirable properties.

The group together with other plant scientists have successfully identified all the genes in the biosynthetic pathway of glucosinolates, so the molecular tools are now available for testing if the pathway can be successfully transferred to non-glucosinolate-producing plant species.

The researchers have succeeded in introducing genetic pathways into Arabidopsis plants to enable the production of new glucosinolates. Two such examples are the over-expression of CYP79A1 and CYP79D2 from sorghum and cassava, respectively, to produce mustard- and capers-flavoured Arabidopsis.

Save the spud

Engineering of the potato to produce glucosinolates could enable improved pest resistance. The science is based on local customs in the Central Andes, where potatoes are grown simultaneously with the glucosinolate-producing Tropaeolum tuberosum, locally known as mashua.

The mashua is traditionally used as a ‘barrier crop’ to protect the potato plants from the attack of pests. By engineering the glucosinolate metabolon into potatoes, the researchers hope to increase pest resistance in the plants.

Positive image of GMOs

“The general opinion of the public is changing towards GMOs,” said Dr Halkier. “People are looking towards plants to solve the challenges for food, feed, and energy.”

She made reference to the Green Revolution that took 20 years to develop wheat varieties by conventional means. “We can generate a green revolution in any crop,” said Dr Halkier.

And fears and resistance are slowly changing. “With so much regulation we are sure we won’t put monster plants out in the fields,” she said.


Dr Halkier’s research has been honoured by Danisco, which awarded her the 2008 Danisco Award and DKK 250,000 (€33,562 at today’s rate).

“Barbara Ann Halkier is the hallmark of solid, high-quality basic research for which she has won international acclaim; she also has a keen eye for the practical application of her research, reflected in 11 patent applications within the production of bioactive natural substances,” said the company.

Dr Halkier said she was thankful for the acknowledgement and noted that it was recognition of the importance of plant science by Danisco.

Disclaimer: This article has been exceptionally modified because of possible conflicts with publication in a peer-reviewed, high-impact journal

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