A new set of synthetic biology tools to uncover advanced plant engineering

The tools provide the excellent control needed for bioenergy and sustainable agriculture efforts.


The ability to genetically engineer plants is key for creating sustainable agriculture and renewable energy. But existing methods to engineer plants are underdeveloped compared to those for bacteria. This limits scientists in their ability to add preferable traits or delete unwanted ones.

To meet this need, scientists at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) developed a set of synthetic plant promoters that will aid them in engineer more sophisticated traits in plants. The tools allow scientists to control how much or how little a gene is expressed, providing more control. They also enable the genes to be expressed in a specific part of the plant, such as the roots or the leaves. These functionalities have previously been challenging to achieve.

Shih, director of Plant Biosystems Design at JBEI, said this research provides a proof of concept that plant promoters can be tailor-made to achieve a specific gene expression pattern.

“There’s a lot of excitement in the field there. We’ve been stuck with using whatever promoters already exist,” Shih said. “If we can design them from scratch, it allows us not only to engineer various traits into plants, but it also opens up the window to study plant biology in a whole different way using synthetic biology.”

The ability to design and build custom-made promoters now gives us the flexibility to go after different targets and applications,” Shih said. “It opens the door to sophisticated synthetic biology efforts in the future.”

JBEI is a DOE Bioenergy Research Center supported by DOE’s Office of Science.

Journal Reference:
  1. Belcher, M.S., Vuu, K.M., Zhou, A. et al. Design of orthogonal regulatory systems for modulating gene expression in plants. Nat Chem Biol (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41589-020-0547-4