Researchers from The University of Western Australia are building synthetic gene circuits to control and customise where, when, and under what environmental conditions a gene is turned on or off in a plant.
Dr James Lloyd and Professor Ryan Lister, from UWA’s School of Molecular Sciences, are authors of the study Synthetic memory circuits for stable cell reprogramming in plants, published in Nature Biotechnology.
Dr Lloyd said the synthetic gene circuits could be used to engineer plants with enhanced resistance to harmful environmental conditions or pathogens, improved growth and nutritional characteristics, and to make new useful products on demand.
“Synthetic gene circuits are similar to electronic circuits, but they’re built from biological parts such as DNA and proteins, and they operate within an organism,” he said.
“Like any organism, plants naturally grow and function based on their own complex in-built programs. With synthetic gene circuits we can now write our own custom programs to precisely tailor plant function.”
Professor Lister, from UWA’s ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology and Head of the Genome Biology and Genetics program at the Harry Perkins Institute, said the new DNA-based gene circuit system could be used to program a plant to turn certain genes on or off when it perceived a desired combination of specific conditions, which could be internal, environmental, or even artificial cues.
“Our research demonstrates how we could now program synthetic gene circuits that function in plants,” Professor Lister said.
“This new gene circuit toolkit will enable plant traits to be controlled with much greater precision and customisability than was previously possible.”
Dr Lloyd said this greater level of sophistication in controlling when and where a gene and cellular process was turned on in a plant could enable plant biotechnologists to develop a new generation of ‘smart plants’ with enhanced capabilities that activated only when needed, such as triggering frost protection in advance of a cold snap.
“These circuits give us new abilities to program in the language of the cell, enabling development of novel plant capabilities that aren’t possible by conventional breeding or genetic engineering approaches,” Professor Lister said.
“We hope this customisability will enable development of improved crops, and tailoring of plants to new environments, such as the burgeoning indoor vertical farming industry, or further away as we venture beyond Earth.”