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Although the flows of material through metabolic networks are central to cell function, they are not easy to measure other than at the level of inputs and outputs. This is particularly true in plant cells, where the network spans multiple subcellular compartments and where the network may function either heterotrophically or photoautotrophically. For many years, kinetic modelling of pathways provided the only method for describing the operation of fragments of the network. However, more recently, it has become possible to map the fluxes in central carbon metabolism using the stable isotope labelling techniques of metabolic flux analysis (MFA), and to predict intracellular fluxes using constraints-based modelling procedures such as flux balance analysis (FBA). These approaches were originally developed for the analysis of microbial metabolism, but over the last decade, they have been adapted for the more demanding analysis of plant metabolic networks. Here, the principal features of MFA and FBA as applied to plants are outlined, followed by a discussion of the insights that have been gained into plant metabolic networks through the application of these time-consuming and non-trivial methods. The discussion focuses on how a system-wide view of plant metabolism has increased our understanding of network structure, metabolic perturbations and the provision of reducing power and energy for cell function. Current methodological challenges that limit the scope of plant MFA are discussed and particular emphasis is placed on the importance of developing methods for cell-specific MFA.

Original publication




Journal article


Biochem J

Publication Date





27 - 38


Energy Metabolism, Metabolic Flux Analysis, Metabolic Networks and Pathways, Plants