A team of researchers has managed to control the direction and intensity of the growth of the roots of Arabidopsis plants by inserting a biological device into them. In a revolutionary advance, this allowed the researchers to “send” programmed orders to the plant as if it were a game console.
The science and other stuff to know
In an article published in the journal Science, the researchers described how they developed a series of tools that allowed them to control the growth of plant roots through genetic programming. It is the first time that something like this has been achieved with organisms as large as plants, as the only successful ancestors of genetically controlled organisms are related to bacteria and unicellular life forms.
The biological machine that made the genetic programming of roots possible was built by taking parts of the genomes of viruses and bacteria that affect the plant in different ways and assembling them in such a way that they could generate the desired effect on root growth. This is the genetic circuitry responsible for transferring commands to the plant genome.
The researchers managed to get the roots to grow in the shape of a spider web, all at once downwards, or to spread horizontally, staying close to the surface. These various behaviors occurred as a result of a combination of factors such as soil and root type, water and light availability, and the precise configuration of the genetic circuit.
Although this method has many limitations, such as the researchers’ inability to predict or control 100 percent of the behavior of the roots and their genetic evolution, they are confident that this is a significant advancement not only for synthetic biology but also for all humans. That’s because this technique has the potential to be transformative for agriculture and food production in areas where irrigation water or sunlight is scarce or abundant, where the soil is rocky or acidic, and so on.
We could program the genetic development of the vegetables before sowing their seeds and control the direction of growth, density, and length of their roots according to the availability of resources in the area. In this way, we would increase the efficiency of food productivity in disadvantaged zones.
It should be noted that the researchers’ main challenge is to develop genetic tools that are more sensitive to the biological responses of plants, which is why they must devise a way for the circuit’s stimulus to not interfere with the plant’s instinctive behavior while also dampening its strong responses to changes in environmental conditions.