There are ways to improve the carbon efficiency of plants, while increasing production. By making use of diversified cropping systems growers can reduce the carbon footprint up to 300 %.

Synthetic Biology in Agriculture
Synthetic Biology in Agriculture

Article from | Len Calderone

Synthetic biology encompasses the redesigning of organisms for useful purposes in agriculture by engineering them to have new abilities. Researchers use synthetic biology to employ the power of nature to solve problems in agriculture. 

Synthetic biology can find ways to improve plant carbon efficiency, reduce synthetic fertilizer usage by optimizing plant nitrogen and phosphorous utilization, improve the nutritional value of crop plants, and harness the power of photoautotrophic organisms as large-scale production platforms.

Wheat is probably one of the most used food sources. Millions of people use wheat for many food applications on a daily basis. Yet, wheat has a serious effect on the climate. Fuel, inorganic fertilizers and pesticides are utilized in wheat production and they discharge greenhouse gases that impact climate change in undesirable ways.



Next to maize and rice, wheat is the third largest cereal crop. To meet the demand, wheat production must improve significantly. Yet, its environmental footprint must be reduced. Future increase in grain production must typically come from existing farmland because of the limited availability of uncultivated land and the environmental apprehensions associated with the conversion of carbon-rich forests and grasslands to farm land.

There are ways to improve the carbon efficiency of plants, while increasing production. By making use of diversified cropping systems growers can reduce the carbon footprint up to 300 %. Nitrogen fertilizer which is used on these crops contribute up to 50 % of the total carbon emissions. Therefore, farmers must improve the efficiency of nitrogen fertilizer. 

Intensified rotation with reduced summer fallow can lower the carbon footprint by as much as 150 %, compared with a system that has a high usage of summer fallow. The carbon footprint can be lowered using soil carbon removal since the crop emissions can be partly offset by carbon conversion from atmospheric CO2 into plant biomass and ultimately captured into the soil.  These farming tactics can optimize the system performance while lessening the carbon footprint of crop cultivation.

Synthetic fertilizer usage can be reduced by optimizing plant nitrogen and phosphorous utilization.  Nitrogen and phosphorus are the most significant nutrients for crop production. Nitrogen impacts the structural component and metabolic compounds in a plant cell. Nitrogen is an indispensable part of chlorophyll, which is responsible for the photosynthesis process. A plant can get its nitrogen from the soil by mineralizing organic materials, but soil minerals do not release enough nitrogen to support the plant; therefore, fertilizing is necessary for high production. Phosphorous contributes to the nucleic acid structure of plants. The nucleic acid is indispensable in protein synthesis regulation; therefore, phosphorous is significant in cell division and the increase of new plant tissue. Phosphorous is one of the 17 essential nutrients for plant growth and it is interrelated to intricate energy transformations in a plant.

Increasing the nutritional value of food is obtainable by supplying a suitable rhizosphere microbiome for a given crop. The variety of microbes linked with plant roots is huge. This plant associated microbial community, is vital for plant health. Advances in plant microbe interactions research uncovered that plants are able to shape their rhizosphere microbiome. During a pathogen or insect attack, plants are able to recruit protective microorganisms, and improve microbial activity to overwhelm pathogens in the rhizosphere. 

Photoautotrophs are organisms that achieve photosynthesis. Sunlight, carbon dioxide and water are converted into organic materials to be used in cellular functions such as biosynthesis and respiration. In an ecological context, they provide nutrition for all other forms of life. In terrestrial environments, plants are the principal variety. Photoheterotrophs depend on light for energy and mostly organic compounds from the environment for their source of carbon.

These improvements in agriculture are possible because in synthetic biology, scientists typically stitch together long stretches of DNA and implant them into an organism's genome. These synthesized pieces of DNA could be genes that originate in other organisms or they could be entirely original.

Rewriting genomes will play an important role in plant synthetic biology. Synthetic biology works toward the creation of new biological systems, including user-designed plants and plant cells. These systems can be used for a diversity of purposes, such as reducing crop losses by altering cellular responses to pathogens or climate change. To reach the greatest capability of plant synthetic biology, techniques are essential to provide control over the genetic code, such as enabling targeted modifications to DNA sequences within living plant cells. This control is now obtainable because of recent advances in the use of sequence specific nucleases to precisely engineer genomes.

Plant synthetic biology endeavors to use engineering principles in plant genetic design. One requirement of plant synthetic biology is the implementation of conventional standardized technologies that make possible the construction of complex multigene structures at the DNA level while facilitating the exchange of genetic building blocks among plant bioengineers.

Why is synthetic biology in agriculture beneficial? By employing synthetic biology strategies in food and agricultural industries, it improves the quality, quantity and safety of food. We see new food types or ingredients with medicinal significance or greater shelf life. The production of environmentally friendly and more vigorous plant growth treatments will become available. We will see pesticides and fertilizers that can respond to specific environmental or organismal conditions. And, the environmental impact of traditional methods of food production and agricultural routines is minimized. 

Time and money for farmers, producers and manufacturers is saved because of the reduced cost of production. There will also be increased access to renewable and more affordable sources of human food or animal feedstock.

Synthetic biology is also changing what we eat. Many of the new foods are made using synthetic biology, using principles of genetic engineering to create life forms from scratch. Frequently, it’s a protein produced by plant that imparts the preferred quality. The gene sequence for that protein is conceived chemically in a lab and implanted into yeast or bacteria cells. Then, a fermentation process turns the microbes into little factories that mass produce the desired protein, which is then utilized as a food ingredient.

The question is, “Will synthetic biology be a boon to farmers or will it harm their livelihood.”


The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AgriTechTomorrow

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