Human health and survival depend in large part on the chemistry of plant metabolism. About a quarter of our prescription drugs and half of anticancer drugs come from plants. These compounds, called specialized or secondary metabolites, are used to defend plants against pests and disease. They differ from primary metabolites, which govern normal cell functions instead of responding to environmental conditions. Sue Rhee wants to understand how plants evolved this chemical machinery. She developed computational tools to reconstruct species-specific metabolic networks on the genome scale and systematically analyzed these networks from functional and evolutionary perspectives. This work could dramatically impact agriculture, drug discovery, and biotechnology.

Understanding how plants evolved its vast networks of metabolic chemical reactions has been a longstanding goal in plant biology. But until now it has taken years to decades to plot a single chemical-reaction pathway. Rhee’s lab developed a high-throughput computational pipeline to predict metabolic enzymes and pathways, based on extensive libraries of plant data. She combined it with a semiautomated validation system and manual processes that have reduced the time to map out the steps from weeks to hours.