Plant synthetic biology and the challenge of sustainability
Synthetic Biology offers the prospect of reprogrammed biological systems for improved and sustainable bioproduction. While early efforts in the field have been directed at microbes, the engineering of plant systems provides even greater potential benefits. In contrast to microbes, plants are already globally cultivated at extremely low cost, harvested on the giga-tonne scale, and routinely used to produce the widest range of biostuffs, from fibres, wood, oils, sugar, fine chemicals, drugs to food. Plants are genetically facile, and GM plants are currently grown on the >100 million hectare scale. Plant systems are ripe for synthetic biology, and any improvement in the ability to reprogram metabolic pathways or plant architecture will have far-reaching consequences.

The OpenPlant initiative

The OpenPlant initiative aims to promote:

(i) Interdisciplinary exchange: The UK needs a hub for interdisciplinary exchange between the foundational technologies and more applied plant sciences that will underpin advances in Synthetic Biology, and provide competitive advantages for UK industry. We will directly promote and fund interdisciplinary efforts in plant Synthetic Biology, to explore novel foundational technologies and applications, build shared resources, use these tools for trait development and provide a point of exchange for young scientists and entrepreneurs.

(ii) Open technologies for innovation: Current IP practices and restrictive licensing threaten to restrict innovation as the scale of DNA systems increases. We believe that the field needs to explore new “two-tier” intellectual property models that will protect investment in applications, while promote sharing of DNA components and freedom-to-operate for small companies in commercial applications of Synthetic Biology. We will create new forums and opportunities for open innovation in plant synthetic biology.

(iii) Responsible innovation for sustainable agriculture and conservation: Past experiences with GM technologies have shown that they cannot be developed in isolation from social, ethical and environmental considerations, and our proposal will fund work on the wider implications of the technology at local and global scales. We will follow-up recent Wildlife Conservation Society sponsored discussions in Cambridge on the potential impact of Synthetic Biology on environmental conservation and sustainable human practices. This will bring together a wide range of engineers, scientists and policy developers to explore new technologies and possible models for sustainable agriculture, bioproduction and land use.