13 May 2015

GRANT: Hormone regulating diterpenoids from the Chaste Tree

Allison Maree Heskes from Center for Synthetic Biology has received a prestigious 1.4 mio DKK Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant from the EU to elucidate the biosynthetic pathway of a natural compound from the fruit of the Chaste tree.

The seeds of the Chaste tree - Vitex agnus-castus - were once used to reduce sex-drive. Now it has been proven that in large amounts, a compound from the tree can infact increase women's fertility and reduce the discomfort of PMS, which 30% of all women experience and has a great impact of their quality of life.  

However, it is very difficult to extract the desired substances from the fruit in its pure form and thus mass produce it.

Allison has received a grant to make mass production more attainable and sustainable. The first step is to locate where in the tree the correct diterpenoids are produced and then identify the enzymes involved in their biosynthesis.

One of the interesting things about this project is the technologies we are using. We use state of the art mass spectrometry imaging, at the same time as we are working within the field of synthetic biology”,
Allison explains.

Mass spectrometry imaging is a new technology which UCPH has recently implemented. It works by bombarding the halved fruit with lasers, which releases the compounds from the target areas so they can be analysed. By firing at different areas in the fruit, we can map where in the fruit the interesting compounds are. 

When it is clear which elements in the tree produce the bioactive compounds, Allison will use synthetic biology methods to reconstruct these elements in another organism. Yeast for example is an excellent host plant, as it can produce larger and purer amounts of the the bioactive compound, which can then be used in medicines. 

She stresses that the drug has some potential other perspectives. In combination with other substances, it can prove effective against Parkinson's disease and other with neurological diseases.

Postdoctoral researcher Allison Maree Heskes

Danish science news site Ingeniøren has published an article about Allison's work.
Read the article here (in Danish) 

Postdoc Allison Maree Heskes
Department for Plant and Environment Science 
E-mail amh@plen.ku.dk