2. At the core of green industry: proteins, autophagy and control

DNA contains the instructions, but in the end the building blocks of life are the proteins dictated by the genome. Uncovering the secrets of how they are regulated and work is key to creating applications for a greener industry.

Noteworthy among these secrets is the concept of proteostasis, or the way in which a cell strikes the perfect balance between production, function and elimination of its proteins. And two words related to this and to each other: ubiquitination and autophagy. The first is a protein-marking system that signals them to be eliminated by cell compounds called proteasomes. The second is a broad term that literally implies "eating one's self" and refers to the process through which cells destroy their own components (one of the people that discovered this, Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi, has just won the 2016 Nobel Prize in medicine). But as explained by Diane Bassham, Professor at the University of Iowa, “Autophagy isn't death, it’s recycling and defense." Some of its functions are to eliminate toxins and even obtain energy in times of scarcity and stress.

Part of the B·Debate was used to present new data on the complex mechanisms involved in each of these terms. And also to share approaches that are a first leap from basic to more applied research. One of these was presented by Peter Bozhkov, professor at the University of Uppsala, in Sweden, whose group is working on "manipulating autophagy to improve plant yield." Bozhkov showed that by increasing the expression of two genes associated with the process, they can boost the growth and production of Arabidopsis seeds, one of the plants most commonly used in research. The problem is that it seems to be at the expense of decreasing its resistance to bacterial infections.

Additionally, the group led by Nico Dissmeyer, researcher at Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry, in Germany, has developed a technology that allows scientists to introduce a sort of switch into plants. This biological mechanism is temperature controlled and indicates whether or not the cell should eliminate certain proteins. This is not only highly valuable for research, but Dissmeyer also says, "It will allow us to generate phenotypes on demand" and could even be used in the future, for example, to design specific in vivo bioreactors, cells that produce the desired molecules that wouldn't do so naturally.