Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology approaches to engineering plant form

Jim Haseloff

University of Cambridge, UK


Research interests

Synthetic Biology is an emerging field that employs engineering principles for constructing genetic systems. The approach is based on the use of well characterised and reusable components, and numerical models for the design of biological circuits. In microbial systems, this has proved a more robust way to construct novel regulatory networks, including synthetic oscillators, switches, logic gates, intercellular signaling systems and metabolic networks, and shows great potential for the engineering of multicellular systems. It is feasible to consider creating new tissues or organs with specialised biosynthetic or storage functions by remodelling the distribution of existing cell types. Plants, with their indeterminate and modular body plans, wide spectrum of biosynthetic activities, ease of genetic manipulation, and wide use as crop systems, make ideal targets. Our laboratory uses a combination of genetic and microscopy techniques in concert with advanced 3D computer visualisation and biological modelling methods for engineering plant development.

Haseloff lab &


Speaker abstract

Synthetic Biology approaches also show great potential for the engineering of multicellular systems. (1) The greatest diversity of cell types and biochemical specialisation is found in multicellular systems, (2) the molecular basis of cell fate determination is increasingly well understood, and (3) it is feasible to consider creating new tissues or organs with specialized biosynthetic or storage functions by remodelling the distribution of existing cell types. Of all multicellular systems, plants are the obvious first target for this type of approach. Plants possess indeterminate and modular body plans, have a wide spectrum of biosynthetic activities, can be genetically manipulated, and are widely used in crop systems for production of biomass, food, polymers, drugs and fuels.

Current GM crops generally possess new traits conferred by single genes, and expression results in the production of a new metabolic or regulatory activity within the context of normal development. However, cultivated plant varieties often have enlarged flowers, fruit organs or seed, and are morphologically very different from their wild-type ancestors. Recent genetic studies have provided detail of the molecular processes underlying plant development. The next generation of transgenic crops will contain small gene networks that confer self-organizing properties, and the ability to reshape patterns of plant metabolism and growth. The ability to assemble new feedback regulated genetic circuits and developmental regulators in planta will allow the engineering of stable new patterns of gene activity, and targeted reprogramming of the number and arrangement of cell types in natural organ systems. Misregulation of key transcription regulators can promote or repress the formation of particular cell types, and coordinated misexpression can result in the ectopic conversion of cell fates. This would provide a means to modify plant form and biosynthetic activities, with the ultimate prospect of producing neomorphic structures suited to bioproduction.

We are constructing a library of interchangeable DNA parts that can be used to build genetic circuits with self-organising properties. These are being implemented in simple microbial and plant systems. In addition, we have constructed a software environment for numerical description of multicellular behaviour (CellModeller), which provides a model for the physical basis of microbial or plant cell growth and interaction within a multicellular tissue or population. Genetic and biophysical models can be described and modelled using finite element analysis methods to allow the design and testing of new morphogenetic programs in silico.

Question or comment about this talk? Tweet us at @NewPhyt using the hashtag #4NPW.