Nethaji Janeshawari Gallage
Section for Plant Biochemistry
Thorvaldsensvej 40, 1871 Frb. C
Nethaji J. Gallage’s research focuses on elucidating the properties of biosynthetic pathways of vanillin and capsaicinoidsacross kingdoms. In addition she tries to biotechnologically optimize sustainable vanillin and capsaicinoids production in different heterologous systems. Nethaji is the first author on the publication that unraveled the biosynthetic pathway of vanillin production in Vanilla planifolia.
Primary fields of research
During my PhD I was able to elucidate the pathway for synthesis of vanillin in the pods of Vanilla planifolia. For decades, the international research community thought the formation of vanillin in the vanilla orchid was a highly specialized and complex process. My discovery showed that a single enzyme is able to catalyze the direct conversion of ferulic acid and ferulic acid glucosides into vanillin and vanillin glucoside respectively. We have now named this enzyme vanillin synthase. Vanillin synthase belongs to the enzyme family of cysteine proteases.
While ferulic acid is an abundant phenolic phytochemical found among plant cell wall components of many different species. Vanillin is the highly specific natural compound, which is the main flavor component of vanilla extract from cured vanilla pods.
The aim of my current project is to replace a part of synthetically made vanillin, which is produced using fossil fuel today (99% of vanillin in the market today is synthetically made), with sustainable production systems such as yeast and other heterologous systems. For this purpose we use metabolic engineering approaches to express vanillin synthase.
We also would like to investigate the role of human cysteine proteinases. The question is, if there is de novo synthesis of vanillin and capsaicin from ferric acid in ingested food. Vanillin, capsaicin and some derived capsaicinoids bind to the transient vanilloid receptor potential channel (TRPV) in humans and are used in the treatment of e.g. peripheral neuropathic pains.
Nethaji's vanilla project was featured in this video made by Reuters TV and broadcastet to news channels worldwide. Click picture to watch the video