Synthetic Biology

Synthetic plant products for industry

Rob Edwards

Centre for Novel Agricultural Products, University of York


Research interests

The major themes of our research programme are based around the enzymes responsible for the biotransformation of xenobiotics and secondary metabolites in plants to yield products with modified biological activities. Through the identification and functional characterization of these proteins, our research goals are to understand the integrated biosystem involved in xenobiotic detoxification in plants (the xenome) and establish its associated functions in endogenous metabolism and physiology. Areas of specialization include determining the role of the xenome in herbicide metabolism and selectivity in crops and weeds and using these enzyme systems for the metabolic engineering of plant and microbial secondary metabolism.

Websites: University of York



Speaker abstract

In 2007 in a response to the research council call for networks in synthetic biology, a group of plant scientists, chemists, modelers and chemical engineers formed SPPI-net. The challenge for the network was to engineer plants to produce Synthetic Plant Products for Industrial applications (SPPIs). Such products typically do not exist currently in nature but would have superior characteristics to natural polymers and metabolites when used as commercial feedstocks.
The network identified four themes for development namely;

1) Plant Biopolymer Engineering
2) Synthetic Organelles
3) Artificial Signaling Systems
4) Harnessing Natural Product Diversity.

In each case the theme was approached from the dual perspective of challenging existing paradigms of plant metabolism and physiology and through engagement with industrialists, the potential applied uses of SPPIs in the future. All of the themes were explored in dedicated workshops, with several follow-on projects being subsequently initiated. The formal work of the network ended in 2011, but in addition to sponsoring new thinking in academia, SPPI-net has also been formative in altering the perception of synthetic biology as a viable technology in the agrifood industry. In the course of the presentation the work of the network will be reviewed along with what it might tell us about applying synthetic biology based approaches to engineering plants in the future.

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