The iGEM team that I helped advise a couple years ago recently published a short paper about their project in the Journal of Biological Engineering (open access!). We were inspired to think about plant engineering in the context of iGEM and standardized genetic parts, in part thanks to an interesting passage in Stewart Brand's book Whole Earth Discipline. In his chapter on genetic engineering, Brand writes:

One can imagine organic crops biotically engineered as Rachel Carson might do it. They would be designed in detail to protect and improve the soil they grow in, to foil the specific pets and weeds that threaten them, to blend well with other organic crops and with beneficial insects, to increase carbon fixation in the soil and reduce the release of methane and nitrous oxide, to be as nutritious and delicious as science can make them, and to invite further refinement by the growers.

Along with genetic BioBricks, let there be AgriBricks to finesse crop genomes for local ecological and economic fitness. (If Monsanto throws a fit, tell them that if they're polite, you might license back to them the locally attuned tweaks you've made to their patented gene array. Pretty soon they--or some company that replaces them--will be providing you with lab equipment.)

Our project and the final paper were obviously of much much smaller scope, but we hope that other iGEM teams will be inspired to work with plants and to use our BioBricks to build something great. Here's the abstract:

Background

Plant biotechnology can be leveraged to produce food, fuel, medicine, and materials. Standardized methods advocated by the synthetic biology community can accelerate the plant design cycle, ultimately making plant engineering more widely accessible to bioengineers who can contribute diverse creative input to the design process.

Results

This paper presents work done largely by undergraduate students participating in the 2010 International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition. Described here is a framework for engineering the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana with standardized, BioBrick compatible vectors and parts available through the Registry of Standard Biological Parts (www.partsregistry.org). This system was used to engineer a proof-of-concept plant that exogenously expresses the taste-inverting protein miraculin.

Conclusions

Our work is intended to encourage future iGEM teams and other synthetic biologists to use plants as a genetic chassis. Our workflow simplifies the use of standardized parts in plant systems, allowing the construction and expression of heterologous genes in plants within the timeframe allotted for typical iGEM projects.

And you can download the paper (currently only a "provisional PDF") from the Journal:

  • Boyle PM, Burrill DR, Inniss MC, Agapakis CM, Deardon A, DeWerd JG, Gedeon MA, Quinn JY, Paull ML, Raman AM, Theilmann MR, Wang L, Winn JC, Medvedik O, Schellenberg K, Haynes KA, Viel A, Brenner TJ, Church GM, Shah JV, and Silver PA. "A BioBrick Compatible Strategy for Genetic Modification of Plants." Journal of Biological Engineering, 2012, 6:8.