Certain plants produce alkaloid special metabolites, which are substances that have medical uses: for example, morphine, quinine and nicotine are all alkaloids. Amaryllidaceae plants (such as daffodils and snowdrops) are major producers, but scientists don’t fully understand the chemical reactions that allow them to do this. As Canada Research Chair in Plant Specialized Metabolism, Dr. Isabel Desgagné-Penix is studying alkaloid biosynthesis in these plants so she can reproduce alkaloid pathways in microscopic algae.
Desgagné-Penix and her research team are using “omic” approaches (such as genomics, metabolomics and transcriptomics) to generate the transcriptome and metabolome of Amaryllidaceae plants. The goal is to identify the genes that encode the enzymes involved in the Amaryllidaceae alkaloid biosynthetic pathway and then insert these into microalgae to reconstruct the pathway. Ultimately, their findings will provide the genetic tools needed to produce alkaloids using microalgae or to engineer plant species that are better able to do so.