Synthetic biology may hold key to answering some of the most difficult science questions

An emerging field — synthetic biology — is attempting to broadly address the need for more nutritious food, improved prevention and treatment of diseases, renewable energy sources and protection for the environment.

Euphorbia lathryris
The Euphorbia lathyris plant can be used to create compounds that treat a variety of skin conditions.

The scientific community spends much of its time on the challenges surrounding food, health, energy and the environment. The specific problems may differ by location, but the basics are universal: society needs more nutritious food, improved prevention and treatment of diseases, renewable energy sources and protection for the environment.

With a global population estimated to exceed 9 billion by 2050, that’s no small task.

One emerging field — synthetic biology — is attempting to broadly address these categories, starting at the most foundational of levels.

Synthetic biology has a variety of components, but at its core is understanding the biological functions of molecules to improve or construct new processes. Putting this understanding to work can take the form of developing high-value molecules that perform any number of designated jobs. Implications of synthetic biology advances include breakthroughs in medicine, biofuels, food production and much more.

At Michigan State University (MSU), Bjoern Hamberger is spearheading the charge by taking advantage of expertise across campus.

“’Synthetic biology’ is a fairly new term used to describe a very broad discipline that takes principles from many areas of science,” said Hamberger, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “This is all new ground that we’re breaking. We have much to learn, but the possibilities are almost limitless. MSU has experts in plant science, human health, engineering — all areas that advance our understanding and improve synthetic biology.”

His team is focused on plants and their specialized metabolites — compounds synthesized by plants that perform a complexity of functions ranging from growth to defense.

Researchers have identified the diverse utility of metabolites but know relatively little about the processes that yield them. By determining how plants develop substances to defend themselves, for instance, scientists can better understand how to replicate or enhance production of valuable compounds in synthetic systems.

Hamberger said that the higher the structural complexity of the molecules, the more inefficient it is to produce them via traditional chemical synthesis. This means that scientists need to improve their methodology.

“First, we need to understand how the plant performs the desired task,” Hamberger said. “Then we’re looking to take what is essentially a blueprint of the plant’s natural mechanisms and use that in a synthetic, biosustainable system to produce molecules in a more efficient way. Making processes ‘green’ and sustainable is really important.

“Some plants are able to manufacture specialized, bioactive molecules for plant defense that hold medicinal properties coveted by people for millennia. These can be used as antimicrobials, antifungals and in several other pharmaceutical applications.”

Techniques such as RNA sequencing and metabolomics are employed in the lab to create large libraries of information about what metabolic pathways are active in a plant.

Hamberger and Robin Buell, an MSU Foundation Professor in the Department of Plant Biology, are working with a plant in the coffee family to discover the chemistries, activity and function of its molecules.

In the realm of biofuels, Hamberger said that there are significant concerns relating to economic feasibility. His laboratory is looking to add value to plants, improving the economic return on propagation and increasing yields.

With funding from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, Hamberger and his team are engineering molecules that plants utilize to fashion novel compounds. These end up as the foundation for high-end inks, glues, cosmetics and other products. Hamberger said a major benefit is that substances such as organic solvents, which are conventionally transformed from petroleum, are replaced with “green” alternatives.

Hamberger also serves as a principal investigator on the first MSU international genetically engineered machine (iGEM) team. A group comprising professors, advisers and undergraduate students, the team earned a bronze medal at the iGEM competition in Boston in December 2016.

Their project engineered cold and freezing adaptations to cyanobacteria. The group engaged the Lansing community and presented its work, explaining the significance of synthetic biology and its potential impact on the future. Hamberger said MSU teams intend to compete in the future as well.

“I am really excited to be a part of this at MSU,” Hamberger said. “We’re learning more about synthetic biology all the time, and we’re unmasking the clues that show us how to harness plants’ natural processes. The potential is enormous, from fighting cancer to growing more resilient food crops, so I’m happy to be a part of a revolutionary field.”

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