Modular and programmable genetic circuits in plants created to control specific functions

11/18/2015 - 17:03

Anne Ju Manning

In electronics, even the most advanced computer is just a complex arrangement of simple, modular parts that control specific functions; the same integrated circuit might be found in an iPhone, or in an aircraft. Colorado State University scientists are creating this same modularity in – wait for it – plants, by designing gene “circuits” that control specific plant characteristics – color, size, resistance to drought, you name it.

The relatively new, interdisciplinary field is synthetic biology – the design of genetic circuits, just like in electronics, that control different functions and can be easily placed in one organism or the next.


Ref: Quantitative characterization of genetic parts and circuits for plant synthetic biology. Nature Methods (16 November 2015) | DOI: 10.1038/nmeth.3659


Plant synthetic biology promises immense technological benefits, including the potential development of a sustainable bio-based economy through the predictive design of synthetic gene circuits. Such circuits are built from quantitatively characterized genetic parts; however, this characterization is a significant obstacle in work with plants because of the time required for stable transformation. We describe a method for rapid quantitative characterization of genetic plant parts using transient expression in protoplasts and dual luciferase outputs. We observed experimental variability in transient-expression assays and developed a mathematical model to describe, as well as statistical normalization methods to account for, this variability, which allowed us to extract quantitative parameters. We characterized >120 synthetic parts in Arabidopsis and validated our method by comparing transient expression with expression in stably transformed plants. We also tested >100 synthetic parts in sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) protoplasts, and the results showed that our method works in diverse plant groups. Our approach enables the construction of tunable gene circuits in complex eukaryotic organisms.