Researchers at Lehman College discover missing link needed for solving global vitamin A deficiency

Dr. Eleanore T. Wurtzel

Dr. Eleanore T. Wurtzel of Lehman College’s Biological Sciences Department and the Graduate Center, CUNY is on a mission to develop plants that are rich in provitamin A carotenoids, an ingredient critical to the elimination of Vitamin A deficiency around the world. Together with the help of top scientists in the fields of biology and chemistry, she has been able to identify a new enzyme essential for controlling levels of carotenoids in plants, moving her one step closer to her goal.

The new findings have been published in the scientific journal Nature Chemical Biology under the title “Control of carotenoid biosynthesis through a heme-based cis-trans isomerase.” In the study, Dr. Wurtzel, together with members of her laboratory and collaborators, set out to prove that a certain protein (Z-ISO) in the biosynthetic pathway is indeed an enzyme. Not only did they prove their hypothesis, they also found their protein had a heme—an iron-rich compound found in hemoglobin.

As it turns out, finding the heme was key for the investigators because it showed the heme was using something called ligand switching to control how the enzyme works, which controls how carotenoids are made. The Z-ISO heme is unusual in that it represents a new prototype activity for hemes in general and is proposed to use a new chemical mechanism.

Dr. Wurtzel acknowledges that the success of her study is due in large part to an interdisciplinary approach to the science at hand. She often reaches out to experts in different areas to achieve results such as the one found in this latest report.

“The work in my lab is a presentation of a true interdisciplinary collaboration between chemists and biologists,” says Dr. Wurtzel. “Good science comes about when you find people who are willing, able, and good at what they do to collaborate with you. In this particular case, everyone that worked on this project was bringing in some expertise that complimented what we had.” The lead author from Dr. Wurtzel’s laboratory, Dr. Jesús Beltrán, completed his doctorate in the CUNY Ph.D. subprogram in Plant Sciences. Dr. Wurtzel and her collaborators received funding from the National Institutes of Health for this research.

In addition to Dr. Wurtzel and her laboratory, contributors include researchers from the CUNY Graduate School; New York Structural Biology Center; Department of Biochemistry at the University of Mississippi Medical Center; Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of South Carolina; School of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Georgia Institute of Technology; New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research Limited in Auckland; and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Dr. Wurtzel is an elected fellow of both the AAAS and the American Association of Plant Biologists. She is also Chair of the CUNY Ph.D. subprogram in Plant Sciences.

To find out more about Dr. Wurtzel’s research, visit her website, or contact her at wurtzel@lehman.cuny.edu (718-960-8643).