Eleven projects pitch for funding from the OpenPlant Fund

Aleksandr Gavrin pitching his proposal.

Aleksandr Gavrin pitching his proposal.

Friday 1 December 2017, Norwich, was the day of the pitches for the 5th round of OpenPlant Fund proposals – and what an exciting set of proposals they were. Eleven proposals were pitched, ranging from development of plant tools and methods, to cell-free protein production, software and hardware development, training, and development of resources for schools in Ghana.

The OpenPlant Fund is rapidly building a dynamic community of early career plant synthetic biologists. The Fund has awarded over 60 micro-grants between 2015 and 2017 to projects facilitating exchange between University of Cambridge, the John Innes Institute and Earlham Institute in Norwich and a range of external collaborators for the development of open technologies and responsible innovation in the context of synthetic biology. Through these awards, OpenPlant aims to promote plant synthetic biology as an interdisciplinary field. This latest round of “high quality, innovative and novel ideas” – as judge Richard Hammond of Cambridge Consultants put it – highlights the engagement, motivation and drive the is present within the local community. More information on the Fund can be found at www.openplant.org/fund and documentation of OpenPlant Fund projects can be found at www.biomaker.org.

Fern gametophyte photographed by Dr Jennifer Deegan using her focus stacking photography platform. More information, images and project documentation can be found through  http://chlorophyllosophy.uk/

Fern gametophyte photographed by Dr Jennifer Deegan using her focus stacking photography platform. More information, images and project documentation can be found through http://chlorophyllosophy.uk/

Tools for plant synthetic biology

The first talk, coming to us via skype, pitched for funding to further develop a focus stacking photography platform for teaching and publication in plant sciences. Impressive images of fern gametophytes showed the current scope of the platform developed through the Biomaker Challenge. Presenter Jennifer Deegan (University of Cambridge) made full use of skype by demonstrating the hardware setup, explaining how it would be further developed to expand its scope, and how it would be adapted to build a cheap system for schools.

Next up, Aleksandr Gavrin (Sainsbury Laboratory, University of Cambridge) presented a proposal to make stable transgenic Medicago truncatula lines in which actin is tagged with a reporter gene as a tool for legume researchers. In another legume-focused project, Abhimanyu Sarkar (John Innes Centre) proposed to establish a transformation system for the orphan crop Grass-pea. While there were some challenging legal questions surrounding the shareability of the system, the judges recognised the urgent need for new developments in transformation.


Image by  Pablo Ramdohr , shared under licence  CC BY 2.0

Image by Pablo Ramdohr, shared under licence CC BY 2.0

Cell-free biology

Proposing to compare cell-free and plant expression systems for protein expression, Susan Duncan (Earlham Institute) pitched a project that would analyse synthesis of proteins, focussing specifically on transcription factors. New collaborations between groups in Norwich and Cambridge will provide Susan with a variety of transcription factors to test.

In a related, but “very independent” project, Quentin Dudley (Earlham Institute) proposed to compare protein synthesis in two different cell-free systems, E.coli and wheat germ lysates. The project aims to gather data on yield vs cost of the two systems. He extended on open invitation for people to ask him “can you try my protein”. So, get in touch if you’d like your plant protein to be tested in Quentin’s cell-free systems.

The third cell-free proposal came in via skype, with Clayton Rabideau (University of Cambridge) rubbing the sleep from his eyes to pitch from the US in the early morning hours. Clayton pitched for funding to develop a hardware system called Open-Cell, using machine learning together with microfluidics-based cell-free screening assay technology for screening of enzyme activity.

Computation and training

A third theme that came out through the pitches, was the need for computation, software development and training. Chris Penfold (University of Cambridge), who had arrived straight off a plane from Venice, proposed an ambitious project to develop a suite of computational tools to simulate large gene regulatory networks in plants and mammals. These tools aim to improve rational design and predictability in synthetic biology.


Jan Sklenar (The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich) presented a proposal to bring together proteomics experts and bioinformaticists with expertise in R software. To do this, the group propose a series of workshops for knowledge exchange and training to help both disciplines understand each other. Following these workshops, the team will work together to integrate the ‘R for Proteomics’ package, developed at the University of Cambridge, into Norwich proteomics workflows and further develop the software suite. Jan’s driving motivation for the project is to “be more efficient” and require “less manual interference” for proteomics analysis.

A final computational project was pitched by Aaron Bostrom (Earlham Institute) who talked about mutant worms and Raspberry Pi’s in a proposal to develop a training programme designed around sensing hardware for data collection and machine learning for plant synthetic biology projects.


An artistic representation of a plant-microbial fuel cell, submitted in Paolo Bombelli's proposal

An artistic representation of a plant-microbial fuel cell, submitted in Paolo Bombelli's proposal

International activities

Two energetic presenters pitched projects focussed on engaging directly with an international group. Paolo “the plant electrician” Bombelli (University of Cambridge) pitched for match-funding to enable him to run an international biodesign competition for the development of prototypes for a plant-microbial fuel cell to be used in remote jungle regions as an environmentally friendly power supply for a sensor and camera-trap to be used by Zoologists.

Waving his hands as he introduced himself, PhD student Hans Pfalgraz (University of East Anglia and John Innes Centre) proposed a project, working with Kumasi Hive innovation hub and the Lab_13 Ghana practical science education project, to take inspiration from previous OpenPlant projects and develop open source practical teaching activities, testing these in Ghana and then making more widely available for schools in other low-resource settings.


What the judges say

This was a great event and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It felt like we visited all four corners of science in a couple of hours. The proposals were of a high standard and well presented with some fascinating new ideas to understand and discuss. Well done to all involved.’
— Richard Hammond, Technology Director and Head of Synthetic Biology at Cambridge Consultants
It was a great day, very good science, creativity and a warm welcome. Thanks for the invite!
— Ward Hills, CEO at OpenIOLabs
We heard a number of compelling and original ideas, the majority being led by early career researchers. It was particularly impressive to see so many new collaborations and networks being built, both between the Open Plant Research Institutes and with external partners.
— Dr Nicola Patron, Synthetic Biology Group Leader, Earlham Institute