Smart Plants for a Threatened Planet

Professor Eleanore T. Wurtzel stands in a cornfield (Credit: Lehman College)

Professor Eleanore T. Wurtzel (GC/Lehman College, Biochemistry and Biology) wants to change agricultural crops in order to feed a planet whose population is booming and climate is changing. In fact, she wants to redesign them at a molecular level, using knowledge from plant biology, genetics, and engineering to help them grow more efficiently. This field is known as synthetic biology, or SynBio. While SynBio might use the same technology that produces genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs, the approach is different, Wurtzel says. SynBio comes from an engineering perspective and uses a cycle of designing, building, testing, and learning to iteratively improve on innovations.

In a “Perspective paper in Nature Plants, Wurtzel and colleagues detail their thoughts on why and how this “directed evolution” could help solve agricultural challenges. Wurtzel recently discussed the paper with The Graduate Center.

The Graduate Center: How would you summarize the takeaways of this paper in Nature Plants?

Wurtzel: The idea is that we have challenges ahead — the population is predicted to grow to 10 billion by 2050. How do you feed such a growing population, especially in the face of climate change? The technology afforded by SynBio allows you to start addressing these problems. Changes in plants due to evolution are very slow compared to what could be done with laboratory technology. Nature has evolved the enzymes involved in capturing light energy and turning it into plant matter, but they’re not super efficient. With SynBio, we could redesign them for better efficiency.

The paper makes a few other points. One is that to do these things, we need to start training biologists to think like engineers and to solve problems. We also need “bio foundries” — facilities with the resources to support these engineering experiments. Lastly, we discuss how people aren’t happy with GMOs because they don’t understand what GMOs are. To avoid that same backlash, SynBio will require social input from the public, from stakeholders, and from regulators. It’s not enough to have a scientist say, ‘I can solve your problems’ — we want the public to come to us with their problems, and then we can address them with SynBio.

GC: How is climate change impacting the future of our food supply?

Wurtzel: Plants have been bred to grow under certain conditions, and now those conditions are changing. Climate change changes the whole ecology of an area, from the plants to the bugs and pests to the microbiome in the soil. Climate change is changing all the dynamics of ecological niches. Say the plants depend on certain pollinators and the pollinators can no longer survive, how are you going to help the plants keep growing?

GC: GMO crops are controversial and one can imagine SynBio crops could be, too. What do you want the public to know as they're evaluating the debate?

Wurtzel: It’s about feeding our quickly growing population. SynBio represents a technology that allows us to identify problems and then come up with solutions that address human problems. We can’t breed plants fast enough to meet the needs of society so now it’s basically an engineering problem: Give me a plant that can give me more food. I think this paper is just the beginning of the conversation, and I’m glad to be initiating those discussions.

GC: Tell us a little about your work with students. How does your research relate to your teaching?

Wurtzel: I am a faculty member at Lehman College, and am on the faculty of The Graduate Center's Ph.D. Program in Biochemistry and its Ph.D. Program in Biology, including the subprograms in Plant Sciences and Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. These days I’m teaching a course for students in Ph.D. and master’s programs on how to write research proposals that can be used for their degrees as well as to apply for funding for their research. The course uses a videoconferencing tool, which is great for reaching out to students around CUNY.

Submitted on: DEC 5, 2019

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