May 17, 2024
News Release

How Plants Sense Sugar, Produce Oils

Scientists reveal how some plants can sense sugar, an important energy source, in their environment

Portrait photos of Marcel Baer (L) and Simone Raugei (R)

Marcel Baer (L) and Simone Raugei (R) teamed with scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory to explore how plants sense sugar on the molecular level.

(Original photos by Andrea Starr; composite image by Sara Levine | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

RICHLAND, Wash.— Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory teamed with colleagues at Brookhaven National Laboratory to reveal how some plants can sense sugar in their environment. Their latest study, published today in the journal Science Advances, describes how a particular protein controls whether the plant will invest in making oil, a potential source of biofuel, among other uses.

The study focuses on how the molecular machinery is regulated by a protein that senses the level of sugar, which plants use to fuel their activities.

“This paper reveals the detailed mechanism that tells plant cells, ‘we have lots of sugar,’ and then how that signaling affects the biochemical pathways that trigger processes like plant growth and oil production,” said Brookhaven Lab biochemist Jantana Blanford, the study’s co-lead author.

Blanford and her colleagues teamed with PNNL computational chemists Marcel Baer and Simone Raugei to examine at the atomic level how the protein, called KIN10, works at a molecular level.

drawing of protein structure moving slowly
This animation shows how a flexible loop (orange) on a plant protein known as KIN10 (yellow) allows it to interact with another protein (green)—but only when sugar levels are low. The interaction of the two proteins triggers a cascade of reactions that break down other proteins involved in oil synthesis so the plant can conserve its resources. When sugar levels are high, meaning the plant has abundant resources, a sugar-proxy molecule blocks the loop's swinging motion. That prevents the protein interaction, which keeps the oil-production pathway open. (Animation: Brookhaven National Laboratory)

“By using multiscale modeling, we observed that the protein can exist in multiple conformations but only one of them can effectively bind the sugar proxy,” said Baer, a co-lead author of the study.

The PNNL simulations identified key amino acids within the protein that control the binding of the sugar. These computational insights were then confirmed experimentally.

The combined body of experimental and computational information helped the scientists understand how interaction with the sugar proxy directly affects the downstream action of KIN10.

Learn more by reading Brookhaven Lab’s full news story.


About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Published: May 17, 2024