Chemical biology has much to contribute to the global effort to reduce hunger, improve food safety and support sustainable agriculture.
In recent decades, the developed world has enjoyed ready access to diverse and high-quality food choices. At the same time, industrial-scale agriculture poses environmental and food safety threats, and ∼12% of the world's population suffers from persistent hunger (http://www.wfp.org/hunger). Governments and multinational organizations are developing strategies for long-term agricultural sustainability and food safety (see, for example, the “Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture” at http://www.fao.org/climate-smart-agriculture/en/) that will be essential in raising awareness and creating necessary infrastructure and standards. However, these global problems cannot be solved by large-scale policy efforts alone; actions by local communities and individuals will also be critical. Yet what role do chemical biologists have in addressing these major societal challenges?
At a fundamental level, scientists will contribute significantly by deciphering new scientific knowledge about plant and animal systems and their environmental relationships, which will support practical solutions in food science. For instance, plant genome sequences are appearing at an accelerating rate (https://genomevolution.org/wiki/index.php/Sequenced_plant_genomes) and are providing a more integrated view of plant biology and identifying genetic features that are important for agricultural success (Nat. Biotech. 32, 1045–1052, 2014). Yet, genomic information is most powerful when complemented with molecular-level insights into the cellular pathways that are encoded by genes and that define their functions.
Chemical biologists, with their interests in methods development, skills in molecular analysis and insistence on mechanistic insights, are poised to take these efforts forward. Indeed, chemical biologists have already been instrumental in investigating plant hormone signaling, the chemistry and regulation of plant metabolism (see p. 3, for example), the architecture and reactions of plant secondary metabolism and in the creation of tools needed to understand and manipulate these systems.
Plant hormone signaling is an area where chemical biologists have made important contributions (Nat. Chem. Biol. 5, 267, 2009). Plant hormones are natural products that orchestrate signaling pathways that both regulate growth and development in plants and mediate defense and stress-response pathways. While the small-molecule nature of these hormones might have initially attracted chemical biologists to plant science, the wealth of intriguing biological mechanisms has inspired their continued attention. Most of the receptors for these small-molecule hormones have now been identified, and many have been characterized structurally, often in complex with the hormone. These advances, along with strides in understanding the biosynthesis and transport of plant hormones, have enabled a more mechanistic understanding of plant signaling, which necessarily identifies new approaches for controlling plant growth, development and defense pathways in more environmentally innocuous ways and in agricultural settings.
Delineating the primary and secondary metabolism of plants remains a stimulating basic research area in chemical biology. Plant metabolism makes use of several unique elements, including specialized compartments for synthesis and storage along with transporters to coordinate traffic between these compartments. Thodey et al. recently explored the importance of this compartmental localization in their reconstruction of the late steps of opioid biosynthesis (Nat. Chem. Biol. 10, 837–844, 2014), discovering that the spatial organization of biosynthetic pathways may help to facilitate nonenzymatic steps. In this issue, Schenck et al. identify a bacterial-like enzyme involved in tyrosine metabolism that defies established conventions of plant metabolism, as it is found in the cytosol of legumes and not the expected plastidial compartment (p. 52), indicating there is still much to learn about these processes.
Insights into plant metabolism and biosynthesis also offer opportunities for practical advances in food science. While many reports of engineering plant biosynthetic pathways have focused on the production of drugs or drug precursors, chemical biologists can also seek out opportunities to understand the role of plant metabolites in the environment; knowing more about the molecular basis for plant-pathogen interactions, for example, could lead to more specific or less environmentally damaging pesticides. In addition, as Cathie Martin notes, the engineered overproduction of phytonutrients not only can make plants more nutritious but also can be used to investigate the roles of these nutrients in human health (Curr. Opin. Biotech. 24, 344–353, 2013).
Of course, engineering plants intended for human consumption remains controversial. Yet science and technology will be essential for solving some of our most complex global challenges in the coming decades. As a result, scientists—and, specifically, chemical biologists who are conversant in chemistry and biology—should take a leading role in ensuring that sound science always has a place at the table and by insisting that evidence-based decision making informs policy on agriculture, genetically modified organisms and the global food supply.
Chemical biologists can also contribute outside of the lab by fostering greater scientific literacy in their communities. They can start by discussing new scientific studies with friends and family and highlighting what was learned as well as how and what these new discoveries mean for society. In addition, chemical biologists are educated consumers who can make informed choices about nutrition and sustainable food and promote these science-based ways of thinking in their work and home environments.
Scientists should also seek out opportunities to elevate the discussion of science, particularly in circumstances where incomplete information or misinformation may dominate the discussion. For example, a recent report that short-chain carbohydrates may be more significant contributors to gluten sensitivity than the vilified protein complex itself (Gastroenterology 145, 320–328, 2013) suggests that we should take a more cautious approach when evaluating the merits of each new dietary recommendation. In addition, scientists can be more active defenders of science against marketing campaigns that propagate myths about the role of science in the food industry (see, for example, http://mic.com/articles/90651/dear-food-industry-you-owe-your-success-to-science).
We all have a vested interest in ensuring the future of food on a global scale. Though the scope of the challenges may seem overwhelming, scientists must remember that their efforts at the bench and in society at large are important contributions toward a more sustainable future.
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Food for thought. Nat Chem Biol 11, 1 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nchembio.1730
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