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Synthetic Biology and Reprogramming of Plant Systems

Head of Group: Dr Jim Haseloff

Jim HaseloffSynthetic Biology is an emerging field that employs engineering principles to construct new genetic systems. The approach is based on the use of well characterised and reusable DNA components, and numerical models for the design of biological circuits. The approach shows great potential for the engineering of multicellular systems, and plants are the obvious first target for this type of approach. Plants possess indeterminate and modular body plans, have a wide spectrum of biosynthetic activities, can be genetically manipulated, and are widely used in crop systems for production of biomass, food, polymers, drugs and fuels.

Reprogramming simple cellular systems

We are using close packed microbial cell populations as surrogates for plant tissues. These provide a testbed for genetic circuits and software models that can shape patterns of cell growth.

emergent patterns
Emergent patterns in mixed bacterial populations (Fernan Federici).

From top: 3D reconstruction of plant cell architecture (Jim Haseloff & John Runions); Marchantia polymorpha (Jim Haseloff).
Visualisation and computer models

Morphogenesis is a cellular process, driven by interplay between gene expression and a growing network of cell interactions. We have developed new tools for quantitative imaging of living cells within intact tissues, reprogramming gene expression, and software modelling of physical and genetic interactions between cells during morphogenesis. These combined biophysical and cellular models capture the emer- gent processes found in interacting cell populations, and are needed for reprogramming of morphogenesis.

A simple model for plant morphogenesis

The liverwort Marchantia polymorpha is a descendant of the earliest terrestrial plants. This lower plant is characterised by morphological simplicity, and a highly streamlined genome. The relative simplicity of Marchantia, and access to a growing set of techniques for genetic manipulation, culture and microscopy is providing a new platform for Synthetic Biology and the reprogramming of plant development and physiology.