First gene cloned at UBC’s Okanagan campus

Biology professor Soheil Mahmoud and his team of graduate researchers, PhD student Zerihun Demissie and MSc student Lukman Sarker, have cloned the first gene at UBC’s Okanagan campus.

The gene produces beta-phellandrene—one of the compounds present in the essential oil of some lavender species. Lavender essential oils are used for a variety of purposes around the world—from cosmetic to medicinal. Mahmoud’s research could potentially be used to develop new varieties of lavender that produce the specific essential oil in greater quantity or higher quality.

However, Mahmoud stresses his focus is on the bigger picture—better insight into how plants in general produce and store natural products, and how the genes that control the production of these compounds could potentially be controlled.

“Using lavender as our test model,” he says, “we want to understand how plants produce and store natural products, and what genes are involved in this process. Once identified, these genes can be used to improve production of natural products in plants and other systems.”

Plants produce more than 200,000 natural products. Some produce colour; some produce aroma and scent.  Some are toxic, while others are medicinal.

Mahmoud notes that understanding the production of natural products in organisms is important. He cites as an example the naturally produced compound Paclitaxel—which is obtained from the bark of the Pacific yew tree and has cancer-fighting abilities.

“There is not enough Paclitaxel in the world,” says Mahmoud. “In fact, there is very little of it available. But once you clone the genes responsible for its biosynthesis, you can use them to improve Paclitaxel production.

“We just need to better understand the biosynthesis of natural products, which is what we are working on using the lavender plant as a model.”

“We are grateful to all supporters, including funding agencies and local businesses; in particular, Okanagan Lavender Herb Farm in Kelowna,” says Mahmoud.

With the assistance of Genome BC, Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC, and the National Research Council Plant Biotechnology Institute, Mahmoud’s research team has produced the largest lavender genomics resource in the world, which includes approximately 24,000 partially sequenced genes.  The resource is facilitating the discovery of novel lavender genes.

“The cloning of beta-phellanderene synthase demonstrates that we have the technology to clone and characterize genes here,” says Mahmoud.
“I would estimate somewhere between 100 to 200 genes are involved in the production, secretion and storage of essential oil constituents in lavender, and so far only four have been cloned around the world. This is only the beginning.”