In brief

The use of a novel integrated approach to identify pigments, perfumed chemicals and natural compounds with potential anti-ageing effects in the orchid’s leaves and flowers.

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Vanda (Papilionanthe) Miss Joaquim’s genome in full bloom

18 May 2023

Scientists discover genes encoding colours, scents and bioactive compounds in the genome of Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim, Singapore’s National Flower.

Delicate petals in hues ranging from muted pink to vivid purple—Singapore’s sun-loving National Flower, the Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim (PMJ), symbolises resilience and vibrance in the Lion City. First bred by Singaporean-Armenian Miss Agnes Joaquim in 1893, it seems the beloved hybrid orchid could also hold the secret to slowing skin aging within its genes.

Orchids are known for synthesising a range of bioactive compounds with anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Whether these are conserved in the PMJ remained to be determined. According to Bin Tean Teh, a Senior Group Leader at the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), Singapore is uniquely suited for solving this mystery.

“Singapore is in the best position to lead efforts for biodiversity studies with its world-class research expertise, infrastructure and resources,” said Teh, adding that studies on iconic regional flora such as the PMJ are the best way to showcase these capabilities. Teh teamed up with researchers at the SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Biodiversity Medicine (BD-MED) to decode the PMJ genome for the first time to uncover valuable compounds within the flower’s 32,000 protein-coding genes.

The researchers used an innovative approach that blended state-of-the-art genome-sequencing technologies, data analytics tools and chemical profiling. Teh said that integrating these capabilities was key for making sense of the wealth of data within PMJ’s massive genome. Through RNA sequencing, Teh and colleagues discovered several bioactive chemical compounds in the leaves and flowers of PMJ. They profiled these phytochemicals using chromatography-mass spectrometry and deciphered their functions and properties.

The team got the first glimpse of the splendours held within PMJ’s genome: genes for pigment-producing anthocyanins and others that made trace amounts of scent-producing volatile compounds with exotic notes of vanilla, cedar wood and a touch of spice.

“We now have very deep and detailed biochemical insights on the colours and scents of the PMJ flower,” said Teh. “Some of these could potentially be manipulated for commercial purposes such as perfumery.” Most excitingly, PMJ leaves and flowers produced a class of organic acids called vandaterosides, natural antioxidant compounds touted to have potent anti-ageing properties for the skin.

Teh is proud of the team’s achievement, made special as the first on home soil. “It was the first whole genome assemblies of our National Flower, carried out 100% in Singapore,” he commented, adding that this is just the beginning.

The team’s quest to leverage modern technologies as a means of understanding local biodiversity continues. “We’ll use this integrated approach to study 50 other local plants and fruits,” concluded Teh.

The A*STAR-affiliated researchers contributing to this research are from the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB).

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Lim, A.H., Low, Z.J., Shingate, P.N., Hong, J.H., Chong, S.C., et al. Genome assembly and chemogenomic profiling of National Flower of Singapore Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim 'Agnes' reveals metabolic pathways regulating floral traits. Communications Biology 5 (1), 967 (2022). | article

About the Researchers

Bin Tean Teh is a Senior Principal Investigator at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and Senior Group Leader at the Genome Institute of Singapore at A*STAR. He is also jointly the Deputy CEO for Research at the National Cancer Centre Singapore and a Professor at Duke-NUS Medical School. He obtained his MD from the University of Queensland, Australia and his PhD from the Karolinska Institute, Sweden. In 2010, he received the prestigious Singapore Translational Research Investigator (STaR) Award and relocated to Singapore to serve as the SingHealth Group Director for Translational Research. For the last decade, his laboratory has been focusing on Asian-prevalent cancers leading to seminal discoveries in the field of herbal carcinogen-related cancers, breast fibroepithelial tumours, renal cell carcinoma and cholangiocarcinoma.
Patrick Tan is the Executive Director of the Genome Institute of Singapore and a Professor at the Duke‐NUS Medical School. He is also Executive Director of Precision Health Research Singapore (PRECISE). Tan has won numerous accolades for his research, including the Young Scientist Award (A‐STAR), Singapore Youth Award, SingHealth Investigator Excellence Award, Chen New Investigator Award (Human Genome Organization), President’s Science Award, and the Japanese Cancer Association International Award. In 2018, he received the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Team Science Award as Team Leader, representing the first time a team from Asia has received the award. He is an elected member of the American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI), the Bioethics Advisory Committee (BAC), and a Board Member of the International Gastric Cancer Association.

This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group