Research areas and methodologies

Study of the signaling redox of plant defense responses to stress

The increase in the world population raises the question of which strategies to adopt in order to satisfy the planet's growing food demands. In a context of climate change, losses in agricultural productivity are mostly caused by unfavorable environmental conditions. Therefore, the study of plant defense responses against various types of stress represents an opportunity to identify resistant cultivars and breeding designed to improve plant tolerance to these conditions, thus reducing crop losses. Specifically, by making use of model plant systems, our unit aims with its research activity to significantly contribute to the characterization of the signaling redox which underlies plant defense responses to thermal stress and pathogen resistance mechanisms.

Study of the metabolism of molecules with prebiotic properties in plants and their role in nutrition

Oligo- and polysaccharides belonging to the soluble fiber class are known for their prebiotic properties. Our research unit deals with the study of the metabolism in plants of some of these molecules, in particular of oligo- and polysaccharides consisting of fructose, in order to identify new matrices for the production of functional foods. Furthermore, in vitro and ex vivo analyzes (in collaboration with the Gastroenterology group) have allowed us to highlight new functional properties of these metabolites suggesting their use in support of anti-inflammatory therapies currently used in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disorders.

Analysis of bioactive molecules in foods

Functional foods have assumed an increasingly important role in recent years, thanks to the ability to contribute to the maintenance of good health through the prevention of diseases due to their content in bioactive molecules. These substances, suitably isolated, characterized and quantitatively determined, can be used in the formulation of so-called nutraceutical compounds.

In light of this knowledge, the research group has carried out studies in recent years concerning the chemical characterization of different classes of molecules with potential nutraceutical interest. The knowledge of the chemical composition of foods, with particular attention to those classes of compounds with proven nutraceutical properties, can be implemented by evaluating their activity in biological systems.

In particular, the research activity concerns:

  • Selection of different food matrices such as fresh fruit and commercial fruit juices, vegetable oils, fish products, truffles, tea
  • Optimization of the extraction and/or purification processes of bioactive substances and development of analytical methods for their determination
  • Qualitative/quantitative characterization of the selected molecules using advanced instrumental analytical techniques
  • In vitro studies of anti-oxidant activity through screening on food extracts and/or pure compounds.

Collaborations with other Research Centers

  • CRA - Research unit for the qualitative enhancement of cereals
  • University of the Study of Molise
  • University of Bari
  • University of Insubria
  • University of Milan
  • University of Verona
  • CNR of Bari
  • CEBAS-CSIC, Campus Universitario de Espinardo Murcia, Spain
  • KU Leuven, Belgium
  • University of Messina
  • National Research Council of Spain (CSIC), Madrid, Spain
  • La Laguna University, Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain
  • Institute of Chemical Methodologies of the National Research Council of Montelibretti


1. Plant biochemistry and biotechnology (Ref. Dr Vittoria Locato)

  • Study of the signaling redox of plant defense responses to stress – To study plant defense responses to different types of stress, the research unit uses model plant systems, such as Nicotiana tabacum cell cultures and Arabidopsis thaliana plants. Therefore you have a thermostated incubator with orbital shaking, a biological hood and a growth chamber for the plants. The analyzes of the redox systems involved in the signaling defense responses are carried out using biochemical and molecular biology methods. Metabolites and redox enzymes are mainly assayed by spectrophotometric/spectrofluorimetric techniques, western blottinging and fluorescence microscopy; gene expression analysis is carried out via gradient PCR and Real-Time PCR. In order to identify all the components of the signaling cell that leads to the activation of plant defense responses, the effects of different stress conditions on energy metabolism are studied; therefore, following cell fractionation, carried out using differential centrifugation techniques, mitochondrial respiration is measured using oxygraphic techniques.
  • Study of the metabolism of molecules with prebiotic properties in plants and their role in nutrition – Fructo-oligosaccharides of various botanical origins were subjected to simulation of the digestive process in vitro and tested for their antioxidant activity by spectrophotometric and spectrofluorimetric assays. In order to identify food matrices for the production of new functional foods, the study of fructan metabolism is carried out in wheat and barley kernels at different stages of maturation. For this purpose, the levels of fructans, the activity and expression of the enzymes involved in their biosynthesis and catabolism are evaluated by biochemical and molecular biology assays.

2. Analytical and food chemistry (Ref. Dr Chiara Fanali). Analysis of bioactive molecules in foods: the activity carried out in this laboratory within the research topic concerns the use of chromatographic analytical techniques for the analysis and characterization of bioactive compounds in foods and their metabolites in biological fluids. Specifically, the techniques and instrumentation used are the following:

  • ​Liquid chromatography (HPLC), coupled to UV/Visible spectrophotometry and mass spectrometry (MS) with electrospray (ESI) and atmospheric pressure chemical ionization (APCI) interfaces, can be used for the analysis of different classes of polyphenols present in different food matrices (e.g. fresh fruit and commercial fruit juices, vegetable oils, cocoa and tea). Such methods can be applied to the quality control of a large variety of products for the characterization of ingfunctional redeemers.
  • Gas chromatography coupled to a flame ionization detector (FID) can be used for the analysis of the volatile component of foods, which is essential for the organoleptic characteristics of the product and a useful tool for monitoring the quality of foods and their possible deterioration in the various stages of processing or conservation (shelf life). This technique, used in parallel with olfactory sensors (e.g. electronic nose), allows the validation of a technologically innovative and non-invasive method and has recently been used in studies on the characterization of the aromatic component of the white truffle and its modifications over time based on the conservation method.
  • The evaluation of the anti-oxidant potential of food matrices can be performed through chemical assays such as the Folin-Ciocalteau, for the quantification of total polyphenols and the TEAC, ORAC, DPPH and FRAP for the evaluation of the scavenger activity of these molecules. These tests are carried out using a UV/Visible spectrophotometer.

3. Food science and technology (Ref. Prof.ssa Laura De Gara). Validation of multisensory platforms for quality, anti-adulteration and shelf-life controls of food matrices through the use of systems based on chemical sensors capable of monitoring food products - The activity is carried out in collaboration with the Food Electronics Unit Sensory Systems. The qualitative-quantitative monitoring of selected components in foods of plant origin in relation to two factors, time and method of preservation, are accompanied by dosages of key molecules for the quality and preservation of the food itself. The aim is multiple, including that of verifying the ability of the sensor system to monitor the shelf-life of foods in relation to the loss of the main nutritional principles over time. The studies are structured as follows:

  1. Selection of food matrices
  2. Evaluation of the time and methods of conservation of the selected matrices
  3. Measurement through the sensor system during the storage period
  4. Quantitative analysis of selected components in foods during the storage period
  5. Evaluation of the correlation of the results obtained through the sensor system and the chemical analyses.