Views on synthetic plant products at the New Phytologist Synthetic Biology Workshop

The three day 4th New Phytologist Workshop on Synthetic Biology started on Wednesday 6th June, and we waited until after the Thursday afternoon coffee break to hear a presentation on plant synthetic biology. It was obvious that plant synthetic biology is not yet as sophisticated as synthetic chemistry and microbiology, and the reasons were implied in many of the talks. Plants are multi-cellular, have weeks-long life cycles and their products cannot simply be skimmed off or distilled from a vat of cells.

Rob Edwards (University of York) was quick to defend plant synthetic biology when I put this to him, pointing out that plant plastids are a means both of expressing a transgene and storing its possibly toxic product, all without affecting the rest of the cell. Plants can be grown cheaply, particularly if engineered to do so, although extracting the product may be expensive and difficult. On the other hand, synthetic biology may be used to enhance the flavor, fragrance or appearance of a fruit or flower and in that case the plant itself is a high-value product which requires no extraction.

While Rob Edwards’ SPPI-net focuses on synthetic biology for non-food plant products, he stated that genetically improved food crops can have great effects. Golden rice has the potential to help prevent blindness in areas where communities living on rice-based diets suffer from vitamin A deficiency, and soybean containing high omega-3 fatty acids can improve cardiovascular health. (more…)

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