3 Challenges in Plant Synthetic Biology

By Guest Blogger

Flower in a flask synthetic biologyThis post was contributed by Nikolai Braun and Keira Havens, co-founders of Revolution Bioengineering. Read their previous blog post about how they started their company here.

The first transgenic plant was engineered over 30 years ago, but plant synthetic biology is still in its infancy. A long timeline from transformation to testing and a lack of well-characterized genetic tools make it challenging to engineer a specific function in these multicellular organisms. However, the rewards are great if you take the plunge – plants are the foundation of life on earth, and opportunities abound to build better fuels, feeds, foods, and fibers. And because working with plants can be challenging, there are a lot of unexplored areas in plant biotechnology that are ripe with opportunity. We’ve decided to jump into one of those unexplored areas with our color-changing flower, but to do that we’ve had to navigate the challenges involved in plant synthetic biology.

Challenge #1: Public perception of synthetic biology

One of the biggest difficulties that plant biotechnologists face is public perception of genetic modification (GM) and synthetic biology. The mistrust and anger directed at GM crops has burdened this emerging engineering technology. Monoculture and chemical spraying, mainstays of modern agriculture, are now synonymous with GM to the point that people cannot imagine any use for GM technology other than to sustain those techniques. We feel strongly that the scientific and the agricultural community needs to reclaim the term “GM” by demonstrating the current benefits and future potential of the technology to the public in an open, responsible manner.

At Revolution Bio, we are addressing this challenge directly by developing a plant biotechnology product specifically for consumer sales. Flowers that change color throughout the day cannot be developed through conventional breeding; synthetic biology is required to achieve this novel and unique phenotype. It’s an unexpected use of GM technology, one that is not food, not medicine, and not mandatory – people can decide for themselves if they want this beautiful flower in their front yard or not. By developing plant aesthetics with this technology and giving consumers control over their interaction with it, we hope to inspire and open a new conversation about GMOs. 

Challenge #2: Technical obstacles to plant synthetic biology

In addition to public resistance, an overall limited understanding of plant biology is a significant technical obstacle to plant synthetic biology. We cannot build what we do not understand, and the complicated and unique metabolic processes of plants are being investigated on limited funding and time. While institutions that focus on creative problem solving like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have begun to pivot towards plant biotechnology and provide a much needed boost to basic molecular plant research, more initiatives are needed to increase the body of knowledge. Organizations like Open Plant can then build on this research and effectively carry out their mission of creating new forums and opportunities for open innovation in plant synthetic biology.

In our case, we selected a project in a field with 30 years of basic research standing behind it. Our color changing flower involves two basic components: the pigments (anthocyanins), and the plant circadian clock. Petunias have been a model organism for plant research for decades, and the biochemical pathways involved in central anthocyanin metabolism are well understood. Additional work has also identified and characterized mechanisms and components of the circadian rhythm in petunias. Because of the extensive research that has come before us, it’s possible for us to combine these components to develop flowers that change color. Without this basic research – this comprehensive understanding of the genetic pieces underpinning these mechanisms – our project wouldn’t be possible.

A second technical hurdle is the lack of resources associated with plant synthetic biology. Plant molecular biology has traditionally relied on overexpression and knockouts to better understand developmental, metabolic, and photosynthetic processes. Often the tools developed for plant molecular biology are specific to a given project, and like a lot of specialized science, these tools sometimes have limited distribution. We hope that will change with Addgene’s expansion into plant synthetic biology. There are already two comprehensive plant cloning kits available in the repository, MoClo and GreenGate, and we are excited to see how this exchange of genetic tools facilitates plant science.

Challenge #3: Intellectual property

There is another challenge associated with molecular plant parts, particularly for applied projects intended for commercialization. Many of the genetic pieces developed over the years were generated by large agricultural companies and carry associated intellectual property concerns – patents and licensing agreements. Developing a product without the use of these parts is challenging, and it’s made even more difficult by the fact that transformation methods have also been patented. In order to construct our color changing flower we are carefully making our way through the IP landscape, using plant parts which are endogenous to the plant, off patent, or not patented, and building our own novel pieces where applicable. We will also be working with open source, transformation technologies like those pioneered by Ewen Mullins of Ireland’s Teagasc. 

Plant biotechnology is full of potential, but there are several hazards to navigate when mapping out a new project. We’ve shared some of the concerns that Revolution Bio had to address as we developed the color-changing flower, and we’d love to hear about the obstacles you’ve faced as a plant scientist, and how you were able to overcome them. Share your stories in the comments below! And if you have developed a genetic tool for plant engineering, please share it with Addgene to both build the plant synthetic biology community and to support more efficient engineering of a better tomorrow.

Thank you to our guest bloggers!

Nikolai Braun Revolution BioengineeringNikolai Braun grew up outside of Washington D.C. and has always enjoyed exploring the outdoors and experiencing nature first-hand. He studied biology at Virginia Tech, and earned a Ph.D. in Biophysics from UC Davis in 2007. Nikolai trained as a post-doc at the Biochemistry Department at the University of Manchester as well as the Biology Department at CSU. When not pursuing scientific or business enterprises, he can be found climbing mountains or playing with his two cats.

Keira Havens Revolution BioengineeringKeira Havens grew up in Hawaii where she was fascinated by flowers, bugs, and the ocean. After receiving her bachelors in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2004, she accepted a commission in the United States Air Force. She left active duty to pursue a degree in a synthetic biology laboratory and received her M.S. from CSU in 2014. Outside of the lab, Keira enjoys spending time with her husband and two Jack Russell Terriers.

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Topics: Scientific Sharing, Synthetic Biology, Plant Biology

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