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ISSN: 2329-9029
Journal of Plant Biochemistry & Physiology
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Synthetic Biology: A New Opportunity in the Field of Plant Biochemistry & Physiology

James Weifu Lee1,2*
1Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, Physical Sciences Building, Room 3100B, Old Dominion University, 4402 Elkhorn Ave, Norfolk, VA 23529, USA
2Whiting School of Engineering, Johns Hopkins University, 118 Latrobe Hall, Baltimore, MD 21218, USA
Corresponding Author : James Weifu Lee
Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry
Physical Sciences Building, Room 3100B, Old Dominion University
4402 Elkhorn Ave, Norfolk, VA 23529, USA
E-mail: [email protected]; [email protected]
Received November 18, 2012; Accepted November 22, 2012; Published November 26, 2012
Citation: Lee JW (2013) Synthetic Biology: A New Opportunity in the Field of Plant Biochemistry & Physiology. J Plant Biochem Physiol 1: e101. doi:10.4172/jpbp.1000e101
Copyright: © 2013 Lee JW. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
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With the emerging capabilities of synthetic biology, a novel gene or DNA construct can now be designed and made within a few weeks at a moderate cost (about $1000−5000 per gene), which is now accessible to many Plant Biochemists. Therefore, the emerging synthetic biology capability with the increasing demands for various plant products including advanced biofuels and pharmaceuticals-related products may re-energize the field of Plant Biochemistry & Physiology, in addition to the traditional Plant Biochemistry & Physiology research activities.
For example, genetic modifications of plant cell walls (lignocellulosic biomass) represent one of the significant R&D efforts to intelligently enhance the digestibility of lignocellulosic biomass for conversion to fermentable sugars in the production of “cellulosic biofuels”. This approach acts at the upstream for plant modification and selection to facilitate downstream processing to ensure the economic viability and environmental sustainability of future energy supplies. Appropriate modification of plant cell walls by genetic engineering could produce new plant varieties with significantly enhanced properties for the efficient exploitation of biomass for biofuel production. The modification of plant cell walls will require the manipulation of combinations of genes and metabolic pathways [1]. The emerging capabilities of synthetic biology and the increasing availability of plant genomics information and tools will enable more Plant Biochemists and Plant Physiologists across the world to participate in such a molecular engineering development, which often requires multidisciplinary collaborations.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) has expressed an interest in a more dramatic technology concept “Plants Engineered to Replace Oil (Petro)”, aiming to create plants that capture more energy from sunlight and convert that energy directly into fuels [2]. This approach is to optimize the biochemical processes of energy capture and conversion to develop robust, farm-ready crops that deliver more energy per acre with less processing prior to the gasoline pump. If successful, such an effort may create biofuels for half their current cost, finally making them costcompetitive with fuels from oil. The emerging capabilities of synthetic biology and plant genomics tools make such an unconventional exploration possible.
Synthetic biology with another type of plant cells: eukaryotic algae and/or blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) will likely be a faster moving field, since molecular genetic manipulation with algae, especially cyanobacteria (prokaryotes), is relatively more convenient than that of higher plants. A designer transgenic algae could photosynthetically produce advanced biofuels and bioproducts. Figure 1 presents an example of a designer pathway that could enable photobiological production of advanced biofuel butanol from carbon dioxide and water. One of the key ideas here is to genetically introduce a set of specific enzymes to interface with the Calvin-cycle activity so that certain intermediate product such as 3-phosphoglycerate of the Calvin cycle could be converted immediately to biofuels such as butanol [3]. The net result of the envisioned total process including photosynthetic water splitting and proton-coupled electron transport for generation of NADPH and ATP that supports the Calvin cycle and the butanol production pathway is the conversion of CO2 and H2O to butanol (CH3CH2CH2CH2OH) and O2 as shown in equation 1. Therefore, theoretically, this could be a new mechanism to synthesize biofuels (e.g., butanol) directly from CO2 and H2O with the following photosynthetic process reaction:
4CO2+5H2O→CH3CH2CH2CH2OH+6O2
Note, the DNA sequences encoding for the enzymes of the designer pathway (branched from the Calvin cycle at the point of 3-phosphoglycerate) including phosphoglyerate mutase, enolase, pyruvate kinase, pyruvate-ferredoxin oxidoreductase, thiolase, 3-hydroxybutyryl-CoA dehydrogenase, crotonase, butyryl-CoA dehydrogenase, butyraldehyde dehydrogenase, and butanol dehydrogenase, are now all known. Therefore, this type of designer pathways can be readily constructed through application of synthetic biology using synthetic transgenes.
This type of photobiological biofuels-production process completely eliminates the problem of recalcitrant lignocellulosics by bypassing the bottleneck problem of the biomass technology, since this approach could theoretically produce biofuels (such as butanol) directly from water and carbon dioxide with high solar-to-biofuel energy efficiency. According to a recent study [4] for this type of direct photosynthesis-to-biofuel process, the practical maximum solar-to-biofuel energy conversion efficiency could be about 7.2% while the theoretical maximum solar-tobiofuel energy conversion efficiency is calculated to be 12%.
The designer algae approach may also enable the use of seawater and/or groundwater for photobiological production of biofuels without requiring freshwater or agricultural soil, since the biofuel-producing function can be placed through molecular genetics into certain marine algae and/or cyanobacteria that can use seawater and/or certain groundwater. They may be used also in a sealed photobioreactor that could be operated on a desert for production of biofuels with highly efficient use of water since there will be little or no water loss by evaporation and/or transpiration that a common crop system would suffer. That is, this designer algae approach could provide a new generation of renewable energy (e.g., butanol) production technology without requiring arable land or freshwater resources, which may be strategically important to many parts of the world for long-term sustainable development. Recently, certain independent studies [5-7] have also applied synthetic biology in certain model cyanobacteria such as Synecoccus elongatus PCC7942 for photobiological production of isobutanol and 1-butanol.
Furthermore, the designer algae approach may be applied for enhanced photobiological production of other bioproducts including (but not limited to) high-value bioproducts, such as pharmaceuticalsrelated products: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) omega-3 fatty acid, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) omega-3 fatty acid, ARA (arachidonic acid) omega-6 fatty acid, chlorophylls, carotenoids, phycocyanins, allophycocyanin, phycoerythrin, and their derivatives/related product species.
The biosafety issue as in any other molecular genetics manipulations is also a significant challenge and research opportunity for application of synthetic biology in plant biochemistry and physiology. With proper application of synthetic biology techniques, it is also possible to address this issue. For example, certain biosafety-guarded features [6] may be developed with the application of synthetic biology that could prevent transgenic algae from exchanging their genetic materials with any other organisms to ensure biosafety.
In summary, proper application of synthetic biology with plant cells may provide a significant research opportunity in developing advanced biofuels and bioproducts as part of the solutions towards sustainability on Earth. The emerging synthetic biology with increased demands for energy and sustainability may re-energize the field of Plant Biochemistry & Physiology.
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