Plant synthetic biology takes centre stage

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Published on: October 27, 2014

On Monday and Tuesday last week I was at the Marriott Heathrow for the Global Engage Synthetic Biology Congress. Plant synthetic biology had a dedicated track, and while this meant I regretted missing some talks in the other sessions, it did enable me to be suitably impressed at the quality of plant synthetic biology research, mostly coming from the UK and Europe, and its exciting range of applications.

Plant synthetic biology at Global Engage

A highlight for me was Matias Zurbriggen’s excellent presentation on using plant signalling pathways to remotely control mammalian cells. His objective is to understand plant pathways by reconstructing them in other systems, and via research on phytochromes he has developed a tool to remotely control gene expression in mammalian cells (1) and a light-controlled switch for plant cells (2).

Birger Lindberg Møller gave an interesting and accessible talk about plant synthetic biology for high value product (HVP) synthesis. Whatever your level of expertise, if you’re interested in this area I recommend you watch this earlier version of his talk.

Continuing the HVP theme were Brian King, Vincent Martin and plenary speaker Jules Beekwilder. They all aim to make HVPs using simple chassis instead of relatively energy-intensive, and often inefficient, plants. Beekwilder has had success with building a synthetic valenene pathway in Rhodobacter sphaeroides, using highly efficient synthase sourced from Nootka cypress (4). His enzyme is used by biotechnology company Isobionics to produce valencene. Martin reconstructed the entire 10-gene biosynthesis pathway of dihydosanguiarine in yeast as proof-of concept that complex high-value alkaloids can be produced in microbes (5). King, the lone voice of synthetic biology in moss, made the bold claim that he is ‘yet to see a pathway that we can’t express’ in moss.

UK research on HVP was represented by Rob Edwards and Rupert Fray. Edwards summarised several of his projects using polyprotein gene expression technology, including a synthetic flavonoid biosynthesis pathway in yeast (6). He is also working on the ‘Xenome’ – genes involved in detoxification, which is a HVP of a sort. Fray’s main research interest is post-transcriptional modification, but has a sideline in synthetic taxane biosynthesis (7).

It is easy to anticipate fruitful HVP production based on Anne Osbourn’s current research into the co-expressed, physically linked triterpene biosynthesis pathway (most recently (8)). Osbourn is one of the Co-Directors of the High Value Chemicals from Plants Network, which aims to promote and support more work in this area.

The UK seems to be trailblazing a path for ambitious synbio-led agriculture. Late Monday afternoon was dedicated to metabolic engineering projects using synthetic biology tools to great effect. Christian Rogers presented Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA), highlighting the huge progress, made with synbio approaches, that was almost inconceivable when the project began in 2012 (9). Jonathan Napier gave a characteristic overview on his research into synthesising omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (‘fish oils’) in Camenlina plants: enthusiastic but tinged with British realism. His excellent talk from PlantSci 2014 is available to watch on the Journal of Experimental Botany YouTube channel. Finally Martin Parry discussed approaches to improving photosynthetic efficiency, including concentrating carbon dioxide in plant chloroplasts (10) and using cyanobacterial Rubisco in higher plants (11).

Talks on tools for both wet- and dry- lab synthetic biology were scattered throughout the event. Nicola Patron and Morten Nørholm presented CRISPR-Cas and USER technologies respectively, and GARNet 2014 speaker Siobhan Brady spoke about her Agrobactierum rhizogenes method of fast, efficient root transformation (12). Plenary speaker Patrick Cai spoke about his work with computer-aided-design (CAD) software developers Autodesk on a synthetic biology design tool, Autogene.

A commercial Congress

Unlike most conferences we at GARNet attend, this was a commercial event and felt like it. I thoroughly enjoyed all the above talks, and if you want to hear more about synthetic biology I recommend you attend the Congress next year – assuming it has a Plant Track again. I felt the plenaries, which brought the Plant Synthetic Biology and Healthcare tracks together, were odd choices. The cross-cutting Investment, Funding and Bioethics session was part of the Healthcare track, while some of the commercial Plenary talks were not relevant to plant science. I was disappointed by the poor engagement with social media, which was a shame given the quality of science presented; I know from experience how much good use of Twitter broadens the impact of a conference and raises the profile of both the organisers and speakers.

Also, the Congress was in the rather uninspiring environs of an airport hotel on a busy dual carriageway. As someone I had dinner with said: “We should be in Shoreditch, guys!” Maybe next year…?


(1) Müller et al. 2012, Nucleic Acids Research 41:e77

(2) Müller et al. 2014, Molecular Biosystems 10:1679-88

(3) Peteraki et al. 2014, Plant Phys. pp.113.228429

(4) Beekwilder et al. 2014, Plant Biotech. J. 2:174-82

(5) Fossati et al. 2014, Nat. Commun. 5:3283

(6) Brazier-Hicks and Edwards 2013, Metabolic Eng. 16:11-20

(7) Kovacs et al. 2007, Transgenic Research 16:121-126

(8) Kemen et al. 2014, PNAS 111:8697-84

(9) Rogers and Oldroyd 2014, J. Exp. Bot. 65:1939

(10) Lin et al. 2014, Plant J. 79:1-12

(11) Lin et al. 2014, Nature 523:547-50

(12) Ron et al. 2014, Plant Phys. pp.114.239392 

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