The database “Seed Oil Fatty Acids”

History of the database

More than 40 years information about the fatty acid composition of wild plant seeds was collected from the appropriate pharmaceutical, botanical and chemical literature by the Max Rubner-Institute (MRI), Federal Research Institute of Nutrition and Food (former Institute for Chemistry and Physics of Lipids of the Federal Center for Cereal, Potato and Lipid Research). Beside the data from the literature the collection also consists of data acquired in the Institute from work on the composition of fatty acids and other fat ingredients of plant seeds.

On initiative of Dr. Kurt Aitzetmüller, former head of the Institute for Chemistry and Physics of Lipids, between May 1st, 1998 and December 31th, 2002 this unique source of information was transferred into an internet based electronically searchable database. This work was done with the financial support of the German Federal Ministry for Nutrition, Agriculture and Consumer Protection supplied by the Fachagentur Nachwachsende Rohstoffe e. V. (FNR) (FKZ: 97NR193).

Until December 31, 2008 the database was available free of charge in the internet, before the platform had to be taken from the server in order to improve the system regarding the demands on a modern database. In 2011, in cooperation with the company Comicon, specialized on programs with chemical background and financial support of the German Federal Ministry for Nutrition, Agriculture and Consumer Protection supplied by the Fachagentur Nachwachsende Rohstoffe e. V. a new database system was created with a new user interface and new search algorithms (FKZ: 20014408).

Who should use the database?

Seeds of plants are rich sources of various kinds of lipidic compounds including fatty acids, tocopherols, triacylglyceriols, phospholipids, sphingolipids and sterols. Depending on the plant these constituents are present in different proportions in the seeds.

Fats and oils have an outstanding importance, not only in nutrition and pharmacy, but also in the field of renewable resources. The reason is that this raw material is easily available and regarding the fatty acid composition a huge variety exists. Just this great variety enables a wealth of chances for different applications.

Plant breeders are interested in the knowledge of the occurrence of interesting fatty acids in plants, because additionally to the fatty acid the seeds contain the appropriate enzyme systems, necessary for the production of this fatty acid. By means of the knowledge of the occurrence of interesting fatty acids in plant kingdom and modern biotechnology and genetic engineering it is possible to isolate and transfer the appropriate gene sequences in another easy to grow cultivar.

For taxonomists the knowledge of unusual fatty acids is of interest, as this increases the understanding for the evolutionary relationships between different plant families. Examples of fatty acids, which are characteristic of certain families and thus have a chemotaxonomic significance, are

Laballenic acid (18:2Δ5,6allene) with members of the family Lamiaceae (Labiatae)
γ-linolenic acid (18:3Δ6c,9c,12c), which is typical for the family Boraginaceae and has some nutritional and pharmaceutical importance
cyclopentene fatty acids which can only be found in the Flacourtiaceae, an ancient, substantially restricted on the tropical / subtropical plant families.

Unusual fatty acids emerged in the course of evolution by mutation. Today they are often limited to species that have survived during evolution in certain niches or belong to very ancient plant families. Here fatty acids with unusual structures are often found in significant quantities. Thus fatty acids are found with carbon rings, with unusual position of the double bond, or with unusual chain lengths, especially in archaic families from the early days of the evolution of angiosperms (flowering plants), while the representatives of the younger families of plants rather have oxidized and conjugated fatty acids in their seeds.

Thus the database should be very useful for chemists, biochemists and food scientists as well as for botanists to find information not only for renewable resources and "green" chemistry, but also for gene technology, for understanding the enzymes of fatty acid biosynthesis and their mutations during the evolution of plant families and species, for plant chemotaxonomy and for systematic and phylogenetic botany.

Content of the database

The database contains about 580 different fatty acid structures, more than 7,000 plant species, and about 130,000 individual percentage data for fatty acids occurring in plant seeds. These data are distributed on more than 18.000 tables with results of the analysis from seeds. Searches are possible by plant genus, species, and family; for fatty acids by trivial name, chemical name, "Delta-Notation", or structural element. In the database, one can also search for fatty acid structures or partial structures such as 18:3*, *OH*, *9a* (= for an acetylene in position 9), or *5t,9c* (for 5-trans,9-cis....) etc., and find the occurrence, percentage level and distribution of such structures in the plant kingdom.

The search fields of the database can be combined in any way so that it is possible to recognize not only systematic connections between plants but also the occurrence of interesting fatty acids in the plant kingdom. The tables contain at least the oil content, but in most cases the fatty acid composition of the seed oil is given. A lot of tables also contain information about content and composition of tocopherols, phytosterols and triacylglycerols. Further on in several tables also some characteristic features, such as iodine value or density are available. Additionally information about the bibliographical reference of the data is presented for every table. For most of the fatty acids the user can find some data in the database. The other fatty acids were added because it may be possible that they could be interesting for plants not included in the database up to now, but probably in the future.

A precondition for the present database concept was the definition of so-called “Delta-Notations” (Δ-Notations), which should be used as computer-readable character strings to permit searches for functional groups and partial structures by way of parts of these character strings. Each fatty acid has been given a “Δ-Notation”. Some of them are obvious and have been in use sporadically for quite some time. However, a number of new definitions had to be made, particularly for fatty acids containing carbocyclic rings, epoxy groups, keto groups and other structural features.

We are convinced to provide with the new developed SOFA database a useful and strong tool for the scientific community and we wish you a successful use.


Bertrand Matthäus
November, 2011