Herbicide chemistry may not sound particularly inspiring. But in 1995, when Richard N. Trethewey heard a talk on how herbicides affect the metabolism of barley, he was struck by an idea. At the time, the chemical company BASF was using gas chromatography to characterize the metabolic effects of potential herbicides. Could this technique, Trethewey wondered, be expanded to profile everyday metabolism in plants?
Like many, Trethewey, then a biochemist at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Golm, Germany, had hopes of engineering plants to grow in different environments, grow new drugs or simply grow better. The notion of metabolism was well understood: like people, plants take in nutrients (sun, water and air) and then metabolize, or transform, those nutrients into lots of other things (metabolites), from vitamins to defense toxins. But how does this chemical choreography play out?
This article was originally published with the title Working Weeds.