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Plants lipids, from plant development to human health

Lipids, in the form of very-long-chain fatty acids, are important constituents in plants and play a major role in their development. In the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, INRA researchers at Versailles-Grignon and their colleagues have recently identified key enzymes in the biosynthesis of a particular class of lipids rich in very-long-chain fatty acids, called sphingolipids. They have demonstrated the crucial role of these sphingolipids in the growth and orientation of plant organs. This work could find applications in the field of human health.

Caméline. © inra, Inra
Updated on 05/25/2015
Published on 05/18/2012

Fatty acids (FA) are constituents in a great number of lipids. They differ in terms of the length of their carbon chain, which can vary from 16 to 26 carbon atoms in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, usually referred to a Arabidopsis.
Very-long-chain fatty acids (VLCFA, containing more than 18 carbon atoms) are used in the biosynthesis of numerous lipids involved in grain storage substances and waxes. They are also found in biological membranes in the form of phospholipids (presence of a phosphate) or sphingolipids (presence of a sphingoid base).
Thanks to a combination of molecular genetic, biochemical, cell biology and imaging techniques, INRA researchers at Versailles-Grignon, working in collaboration with their French and foreign counterparts, have identified several factors for the elongation of FA in Arabidopsis.
They showed that VLCFA are essential to the development and growth of plants and are necessary for cell division and polarity, two fundamental developmental processes. They allow a cell to position itself in a tissue and contribute to the oriented growth of organs.
The scientists also identified enzymes key to the biosynthesis of a particular class of VLCFA, the sphingolipids. These intervene in development of the membrane that separates a parent cell into two daughter cells during cell division. They are constituents in the lipid domains that selectively group proteins to form complex structures. These structures may participate in membrane asymmetry, thus creating cell polarity.
These findings open the way to possibly modifying the lipid composition of plant membranes by manipulating the biosynthesis of sphingolipids.
In human health, sphingolipids are also of great interest for their activity in cancer or metabolic diseases such as diabetes. Their potential effects on health are currently under study, particularly in a dietary context where they could be added in the form of supplements or extracts. In particular, sphingolipids could be supplied directly in the form of plant oils, the sphingolipid composition of which would be modified.
At present, the INRA scientists are focusing on camelina, or Camelina sativa, a plant in the rapeseed family that is a close cousin of Arabidopsis and is the subject of new interest. Its oil is rich in essential FA of the omega 3 type, consumption of which has beneficial effects on health, and more specifically on cardiovascular health. In this context, a camelina oil naturally rich in omega 3 FA and enriched in sphingolipids could procure numerous nutritional benefits.


Bach L. et al. 2011. Very-long-chain fatty acids are required for cell plate formation during cytokinesis in Arabidopsis thaliana. Journal of cell science 124:3223.
Markham JE. et al. 2011. Sphingolipids Containing Very-Long-Chain Fatty Acids Define a Secretory Pathway for Specific Polar Plasma Membrane Protein Targeting in Arabidopsis. Plant Cell 23: 2362.