Enhancing fatty acid synthesis (FAS) in maize (Zea mays) has tremendous potential nutritional and economic benefits due to the rapidly growing demand for vegetable oil. In maize kernels, the endosperm and the embryo are the main sites for synthesis and accumulation of starch and oil, respectively. So far, breeding efforts to achieve elevated oil content in maize have resulted in smaller endosperms and therefore lower yield. Directly changing their carbon metabolism may be the key to increasing oil content in maize kernels without affecting yield. To test this hypothesis, the intracellular metabolite levels were compared in maize embryos from two different maize lines, ALEXHO S K SYNTHETIC (Alex) and LH59, which accumulate 48% and 34% of oil, respectively. Comparative metabolomics highlighted the metabolites and pathways that were active in the embryos and important for oil production. The contribution of each pathway to FAS in terms of carbon, reductant, and energy provision was assessed by measuring the carbon flow through the metabolic network (13C-metabolic flux analysis) in developing Alex embryos to build a map of carbon flow through the central metabolism. This approach combined mathematical modeling with biochemical quantification to identify metabolic bottlenecks in FAS in maize embryos. This study describes a combination of innovative tools that will pave the way for controlling seed composition in important food crops.
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