After discovering key genes in the mayapple’s chemical assembly line, Sattely transferred them to a common, fast-growing lab plant called Nicotiana benthamiana, a wild relative of tobacco. She programmed it to produce the etoposide precursor – just like the mayapple. “Now we have the ability to engineer a more reliable source of the drug,” she says.
Once Sattely puzzles out a particular compound’s molecular assembly line, she can tinker with the compound and modify it. The possibilities are potentially endless: versions of drugs with fewer side effects or molecules that help plants better withstand drought and disease.
Sattely is also interested in drug-like molecules made by food crops, especially broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. These cruciferous plants make molecules called phytoalexins, which help them fend off attacks from pathogens. Sattely has identified genes crucial for making these defensive molecules and hopes to harness them to create plants that are resistant to pathogens and are healthier for humans.
“There is a whole kingdom of life that includes some of the world’s best chemists,” Sattely says. “I’m fortunate to pick apart plants’ chemistry – ultimately, that could help improve medicine and help people heal.”