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Thoughts and reflections on the 3rd International Conference on Plant Synthetic Biology


In early October, the 3rd International Conference on Plant Synthetic Biology, Bioengineering, and Biotechnology took place in Cambridge, UK. Ross Cloney was there, and gives us an account mixed with his thoughts on plant synbio!


Guest post by Ross Cloney


What does a synbio world look like? Anyone who has read my previous entries on this blog or if you follow my twitter feed knows I think about what a world with ubiquitous synthetic biology might look like from time to time (in between tweets about my latest homebrewing projects). It was a thought that I pondered during the 3rd annual Plant Synthetic Biology, Bioengineering and Biotechnology conference that was held this year in Cambridge.


Why plants? After all, plants are tricky things to work with and there was plenty of discussion about how in many ways synthetic biology in plants has lagged behind work being doing in other systems. At one point it was put forward that the majority of synthetic biology being done in plants was multi-gene transformations and over-expression of those constructs. This not surprising given plants are complex higher eukaryotes with complex cell structures, often fiendishly convoluted genomes and deep, rich physiology. Several discussions I had revolved around what benefits plants brought to synthetic biology that couldn’t be achieved with yeast or other more tractable organisms? After all, for producing desired products such as high-value compounds, yeast are an ideal chassis. We’re getting quite good at engineering yeast and maybe the synbio world is one of fermenters, from industrial-scale ones spanning city blocks to rugged field-ready units for off-grid use, full of yeast and other microorganisms producing the compounds, biologics and materials we need.


Well one important fact is that we rely on plants for food and this is where the tools of synthetic biology are being focused. While we live in a world of food excess in some places, we still have a lack of food in others along with an expanding human population. Crop yields aren’t increasing in line with predicted population growth, requiring new ways to increase output. Caxia Gao spoke about several published papers showing the application of CRISPR editing technology (e.g. here and here) to develop rice and wheat varieties resistant to disease, neatly sidestepping concerns about introducing exogenous DNA into the plant. Followed by her work in genome engineering ‘domestication’ into a wild tomato, opening the possibility of expanding our crop repertoire.


The focus on crop plants continued with efforts to re-engineer the carbon assimilation pathways for enhanced biomass production, providing improved yields and improved removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. Despite the practical difficulty in working with them, higher plants have millions of years of evolution – and thousands of years of domestication – to harness solar energy and atmospheric carbon to produce stuff we want.


Of course, the elephant in the room for a plant synthetic biology conference held in Europe is the current state of regulations, particularly in the EU, covering modified plants. Was Europe going to remain a no-go area for this technology or could there be developments of such benefit that the regulatory wall would start to crack? Enter the tomato. Cathie Martin from the John Innes Centre discussed her purple, yellow and bronze tomatoes that produce high levels of anthocyanins, resveratrol, and flavonols.


Would these, and the engineered plants that will follow, change the perception of biodesigned food though providing direct personal benefits, avoiding the accusation leveled against the first generation of GM crops that the beneficiary was a large multinational corporation and not farmers and consumers? Would public concern and regulatory reluctance finally give way if the conversation is no longer about pesticide resistance but about personal health benefits?


Maybe the times are a’changing. Golden rice was approved for cultivation last year and the ethos of synthetic biology – sustainability, social engagement and trying to make the word a nicer place to live in – are as strong as ever. Maybe a world of synthetic biology is a world of bronze tomatoes in our salads and previously wild, now domestic, plants on our plates. A world where it is so seamlessly integrated into our lives we don’t even notice it. Maybe it’s closer than we think.


Ross Cloney is a Senior Editor at Nature Communications handling synthetic biology and genome engineering.  He tweets (mostly about synthetic biology, occasionally about his attempts at homebrewing) as @rosscloney 

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