Can we hack DNA to grow more food for a hotter, hungry planet?

by Lisa M. Krieger


Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

To feed a hotter, drier planet, Stanford scientists are building a smarter facility.

The team genetically reprogrammed plants grown in a laboratory chamber to grow roots that are long or short, branched or slender – traits that alter the ability to collect nutrients or water.

Controlling root growth could one day be a powerful new tool for farmers, especially in drought or flooded areas with poor soil. Experts say that in the coming decades we will need to grow crops that can produce unprecedented abundance in increasingly harsh and unpredictable conditions as populations increase. If improved root structures can increase the yield of a food crop, perhaps more food can be put on the table.

“The goal of all this work is to produce crops that increase the sustainability of agriculture,” said plant systems biologist and professor José Dinneny, whose work with bioengineering professor Jennifer Brophy was published in the journal Science.

The scientists altered the root structures by introducing DNA, which changes the plant’s genetic circuitry in response to environmental stimuli. Gene circuits behave like electrical circuits and can be turned on or off to customize behavior.

The goal is to design plants that are tailored to a specific environment – ​​or, in the future, to give plants the ability to adapt themselves.

They tested their strategy on a species of mustard called Arabidopsis thaliana because it’s a fast and easy-to-grow plant. Now that the researchers have proven the idea works, they plan to apply it to commercial crops.

There could be less success on the field. Living creatures react to the wild environment in unpredictable ways. Other genes and genetic networks may require tinkering with.

And critics like the Center for Food Safety argue that there are better ways to tackle the problem, such as B. improving soils or using conventional techniques to breed crops that can withstand the effects of changing climate.

For years, researchers have tried to improve plants through traditional genetic engineering — inserting pieces of DNA from bacteria into a plant’s genome to alter a specific trait, such as pest and herbicide resistance. Corn, cotton and soybeans engineered to survive the Roundup weed killer have become standard crops in American fields.

But the emerging field of “synthetic biology” accelerates research by offering more sophisticated tools. It is now possible to engineer or reprogram entire genomes using made-to-order gene parts from foundries, or “fabs,” much like the industry orders cast and machined metal parts.

“The synthetic biology industry is booming in the Bay Area, and many entrepreneurs are programming biological functions into living cells,” said John Cumbers, founder and CEO of SynBioBeta, a global network of bioengineers. “We can now easily manipulate an enzyme or cell to perform a specific function, such as producing a new bio-based chemical or material.”

But until recently, the field of horticulture remained “largely out of reach for scientists,” he said. “It’s one of the holy grails of bioengineering – how can we program plants to grow into any shape we want?”

The Stanford technique offers fine-grained and complex control, altering not just one gene but the behavior of a whole range of plant genes to induce changes in root growth under different environmental conditions.

The team built synthetic DNA that alters circuits by creating a genetic toggle switch, like a computer’s logic gate, for turning genes on and off.

The genetic switch allowed the team to adjust growth patterns, such as the number of branches in the root system, without altering the rest of the plant. For example, an “off” state created a layer of cells at the tip of a root that blocked further growth.

The team envisions programming plants to develop root systems that are more angulated, allowing them to dive deeper to find water or nitrogen, or shallower to avoid drowning in floods due to lack of oxygen. Plants could be designed for density, sending down a long taproot that won’t hurt a neighbor.

Between 1960 and 2010, the “Green Revolution” increased global food production by 175% by improving the use of fertilizers, high-yielding crops and irrigation techniques. But global crop yields are faltering.

Domestication has created plants that use water and nutrients inefficiently, Dinneny said. They are designed for ideal environments.

Improving yields will help preserve what’s left of our wilderness, he added. “If we’re not going to clear more forests to make more farmland,” he said, “we need to find ways to improve the way we grow crops for food.”

But the project was met with skepticism from critics like Bill Freese, director of science at the Center for Food Safety.

“I feel like it’s very similar to countless other examples of research successes and failures, mostly failures, that I’ve seen,” he said. “I’ve seen so many dream experiences struggling because of technical obstacles.”

The promise of some genetically modified crops has faded, Freese said. For example, weeds resistant to the Roundup herbicide are emerging — making the GM “Roundup Ready” brands of corn and soybeans losing their usefulness. Farmers are now spending more on herbicides and labor costs to till the land, according to a Harvard report.

Rather than genetic corrections, we should focus on improving the environment, such as soil conditions, he said. “If you break away from the genes and look more holistically at the environment in which the plant is growing, you can sometimes find much simpler and more direct solutions.”

Meanwhile, other research institutions are using advanced genetic engineering in the race to improve plants. For example, the Gates Foundation funded the C4 Rice Project to improve rice photosynthesis by altering vein spacing. The Salk Institute’s Harnessing Plants Initiative aims to alter the genetic pathways that control a plant’s long-term carbon storage.

Such research “is an elegant step toward a future world where we can easily design and build facilities to perform a variety of other functional applications,” Cumbers said.

Life is an incredible biological machine, said Cumbers, who envisions modifying the DNA code of plants to build buildings to our design specifications and create entire cities from living, organic matter.

“Imagine if you could plant an acorn and grow it into a house,” he said. “It seems like sci-fi right now, but that acorn has the genetic code to build an oak tree, so what would it take to reprogram that DNA to build a house?”

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