Can we hack DNA to produce more food for a hotter, hungrier planet?

Can we hack DNA to produce more food for a hotter, hungrier planet?

by Lisa M. Krieger


Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public domain

To feed a warmer, drier planet, Stanford scientists are building a smarter factory.

The team genetically reprogrammed plants, nurtured in a lab chamber, to grow long or short, branched or slender roots, traits that alter the ability to gather nutrients or water.

Root growth control could one day offer a powerful new tool to farmers, especially in drought- or flood-prone areas with poor soil. Over the next few decades, experts say, we will need to cultivate crops that can produce unprecedented abundance under increasingly harsh and unpredictable conditions as populations grow. If improved root structures can increase the yields of a food crop, perhaps more food can be put on the tables.

“The point of all this work is to try to create plants that increase the sustainability of agriculture,” said plant systems biologist and professor José Dinneny, whose work with bioengineering professor Jennifer Brophy has been published in the journal. Science.

Scientists have modified root structures by introducing DNA that alters the plant’s genetic circuitry in response to environmental cues. Genetic circuits act like electrical circuits and can be turned on or off to adjust behavior.

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

They tested their strategy in a type of mustard called Arabidopsis thaliana because it is a quick and easy plant to grow. Now that the researchers have proven the idea works, they plan to apply it to cash crops.

On the ground, there could be less success. Living things react to the wild environment in unpredictable ways. Other genes and genetic networks may require modification.

And critics such as the Center for Food Safety argue that there are better ways to solve the problem, such as improving the soil or using conventional techniques to grow plants that can withstand the effects of climate change.

For years, researchers have tried to improve plants using traditional genetic engineering, introducing bits of bacterial DNA 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 the norm in American fields.

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

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

But until recently, the horticultural realm “has remained largely beyond the reach of scientists,” he said. “It’s one of the holy grails of bioengineering – how can we program plants to take the shape we want?”

Stanford’s technique offers complex, small-scale control, modifying not just one gene but the behavior of an entire suite of plant genes to induce changes in root growth under varying environmental conditions.

The team built synthetic DNA that alters circuitry by creating a genetic toggle switch, like a computer’s logic gate, to turn 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 has created a layer of cells at the tip of a root that blocks further growth.

The team plans to program the crops to develop root systems that are steeper, so that they dive deeper to find water or nitrogen, or shallower, to avoid drowning during floods from lack of water. ‘oxygen. Plants could be bred for density, sending up a long taproot that doesn’t encroach on a neighbor.

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

Domestication has created plants that are inefficient consumers of water and nutrients, Dinneny said. They are designed for ideal environments.

If yields are improved, it will help preserve what is left of our wilderness, he added. “Unless we want to clear more forests to create more farmland,” he said, “we’re going to have to find ways to improve the way we grow plants for food.”

But the project has been met with skepticism by critics such as Bill Freese, scientific director of the Center for Food Safety.

“I feel like this is very similar to countless other examples of successes and failures, mostly failures, of research that I’ve seen,” he said. “I’ve seen so many pie-in-the-sky experiences struggling with technical obstacles.”

The promise has faded from some genetically modified plants, Freese said. For example, weeds resistant to the herbicide Roundup are emerging, so “Roundup Ready” brands of corn and soybeans are 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 solutions, we should focus on improving the environment, such as soil conditions, he said. “If you take a step back from the genes and look more holistically at the environment the plant is growing in, you can sometimes find much simpler and more direct solutions.”

Meanwhile, other research institutions are using advanced genetic techniques 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 into a future world where we can easily design and build factories to perform a variety of other functional applications,” Cumbers said.

Life is an incredible biological machine, said Cumbers, who imagines altering the DNA code of plants to grow buildings to our design specifications, creating entire cities out of living organic matter.

“Imagine being able to plant an acorn and have it grow in a house,” he said. “It sounds like science fiction right now, but inside that acorn is the genetic code to make an oak tree – so what would it take to reprogram that DNA to build a house?”

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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