Over a period of hundreds of millions of years, plant species across the globe have evolved to manufacture chemicals that, among other things, serve to protect them from predators. Although many of these chemicals are of medicinal value to humans, wide-ranging scientific research in the field is still significantly lacking.

This is not just due to the vast diversity of medicinal plants, but also due to lack of knowledge about the networks of genes that plants use to make these pharmacologically active compounds.

In a study published Thursday in the Plant Cell journal, a team of researchers has described what it says is an "effective and powerful" technique to identify these gene networks.

"We hypothesized that the genes within a network that work together to make a specific compound would all respond similarly to the same environmental conditions," study lead author Jennifer Wisecaver, a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, said in a statement.

In order to test their hypothesis, the geneticists used a supercomputer to analyze data collected by over 22,000 gene expression studies performed on eight different plant species. After running the data through a new algorithm, they were then able to the networks of genes that showed the same behavior across these studies.

"These studies use advanced genomic technologies that can detect all the genes that plants turn on or off under specific conditions, such as high salinity, drought or the presence of a specific predator or pathogen," Wisecaver added.

Using this technique, the researchers were able to identify hundreds of gene pathways that were involved in the production of these biologically active metabolites.

In addition to potentially opening the door to uncovering new plant products for use in medicine and agriculture, the research revealed that contrary to popular belief, the genes that made up these pathways were not clustered together.

"This idea comes from the observation in fungi and bacteria that the genes that make up these specialized metabolite pathways are clustered together,” study co-author Antonis Rokas, also from Vanderbilt University, said in the statement. “In plants, however, these genes appear to be mostly scattered across the genome. Consequently, the strategies for discovering plant gene pathways will need to be different from those developed in the other organisms."