Plant Metabolons Unlock the Hidden Nature of Phyto-defenses

It has been long known that plants have a complex and dynamic method of protecting themselves from predators and the climate of their environment. These dynamic methods are so complex that they have alluded scientists from being able to explain exactly how they work. In 1985, it was hypothesized “that a supramolecular assembly of enzymatic and structural components able to sequester and channel metabolic pathway intermediates,” termed metabolons(1), must be behind this dynamic interaction between plant and environment. Until recently, these metabolons have been quite elusive.

For the first time, metabolons have been discovered, using fluorescent tags and microscopy, thus unlocking the secret to plants’ medicinal toolbox(2).  The discovery, made by a team of researchers at Michigan State University has been deemed a “milestone,” by the journal Science. Bjoern Hamberger, co-author of the paper says that “revealing plant’ production mechanisms is the key to harnessing the medicinal powers of plants.”

Metabolons continuously assemble and disassemble enzymatic components in an extremely efficient manner depending on certain stressors of the environment, making them extremely difficult to study, but also serve as the very mechanism through which plants have learned to adapt and thrive in every environment on Earth, and provide incredible medicinal value to the animal kingdom.

Now that these preliminary studies have unlocked the door to visualizing a metabolon blueprint, MSU researchers are already looking at how to go about using this information to synthesize phytochemicals in quantities large enough for clinical study. Currently, they are interested in the thunder god plant, a Chinese herb containing triptolide, which has been shown to effectively treat cancer in animal models. By mapping triptolide’s metabolic pathway, the hope is to bioengineer it into a moss in order to produce large quantities of the metabolite for testing.

This research could certainly change the world of botanical products in terms of access, contamination, and availability. One of the main goals that the MSU research lab has is to help a transition away from petroleum based products to bio-based ones.


  1. Dastmalchi M, Facchini PJ. Plant metabolons assembled on demand. 2016 Nov 18;354(6314):829-830.
  1. Laursen T, et al. Characterization of a dynamic metabolon producing the defense compound dhurrin in sorghum. Science. 2016 Nov 18;354(6314):890-893.


email-photoNode Smith, associate editor for NDNR, is a fifth year naturopathic medical student at NUNM, where he has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine amongst the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend campout where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Three years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision. 

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