Programming plants for Earth and beyond

21/05/2024 | 2 mins

Researchers from The University of Western Australia have developed synthetic genetic circuits to control and customise where, when, and under what environmental conditions, genes are turned on or off in a plant.

The study, led by Dr Adil Khan, Dr Brendan Kidd and Professor Ryan Lister, from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plants for Space and UWA’s School of Molecular Sciences, has been published in Nature Biotechnology.

The synthetic genetic circuits have the potential to improve agricultural yields and adapt crops for distinct environments such as altered Earth climates or in vertical farming and space exploration.

The research developed a new genetic ‘programming language’ that can be written into a plant’s genome to enable the construction of customised patterns of gene activity.

“These genetic circuits enable us to program plant cells to sense and respond to desired combinations of signals and conditions, allowing us to precisely reprogram gene expression,” Dr Khan said.

“It’s a significant step towards creating ‘smart’ plants, capable of switching ‘on’ or ‘off’ particular useful genes and activities in response to multiple signals, such as changes in environmental conditions or biological stress.”

Dr Kidd said circuits were tested in the model plant species Arabidopsis and moss, as well as in canola and wheat crops.

“The circuits could allow us to add new cellular functions and behaviours in plants, such as enhanced disease and stress tolerance or on-demand production of pharmaceuticals or biomaterials,” Dr Kidd said.

Professor Lister, from UWA’s ARC Centre of Excellence in Plants for Space and the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, said the new technology allowed gene expression to be programmed when and where it was needed.

“We’re excited about this technological development and aim to use it to reprogram plants for the controlled environment conditions of space missions and vertical farming industries on Earth,” Professor Lister said.

Media references

Annelies Gartner (UWA PR & Media Adviser) 6488 6876

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