OpenPlant

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Plant Sciences

Abstract

An essential concept in Synthetic Biology is that genetic systems can be constructed using standardised, interchangeable parts. For example, functional DNA sequences such as promoters, ribosome binding sites and coding sequences can be used to develop synthetic gene systems that can be used to reprogram living systems in a systematic way. The prospect of large-scale reprogramming of living systems, will require access to relatively large numbers of components. This is in contrast to existing GM products that contain one or a few components. There is growing requirement for libraries of well characterized routine components that can be shared for the construction of a variety of systems, where small companies would be ensured freedom to operate. This is essential to foster the kind of innovation seen at the emergence of other new technologies such as microelectronics and software development.

Accordingly, a substantial part of the Synthetic Biology field has promoted open standards and sharing of data and resources, inspired by the open source software movement. The educational community has embraced the open source principle, and DNA parts are widely and freely distributed internationally as part of educational efforts like the iGEM community, and grows year-on-year. The BioBricks Foundation is a non-profit organisation which has roots in the academic community, and which has promoted a legal framework which would allow protection of Synthetic Biology applications and key activities, but which would facilitate sharing of parts.

Plant biotechnology is a good example of a field where current IP practices have led to a restriction of exchange and innovation, and this model is threatening to predominate in plant synthetic biology. For examples, one just has to look at restrictive licensing of basic technologies like transformation, selection markers and useful genes. We believe that the field needs to explore new "two-tier" intellectual property models that will protect investment in applications, while promote sharing of DNA components and freedom-to-operate for small companies in commercial applications of Synthetic Biology. As the speed and scale of biological assembly increases, this becomes more pressing.

As part of the OpenPlant initiative, we will establish open-source DNA registries across the UK for sharing information, and to join an international web of registries with plant specific parts. The technology is inherently low cost, renewable and has obvious applications for new sustainable technologies.

Technical Summary

Foundational technologies: As part of the OpenPlant initiative, we will (i) establish open-source DNA registries for sharing information, and join an international web of registries with the first plant specific parts. (ii) We will develop a major new plant chassis for Synthetic Biology, (iii) develop new DNA parts for the control and quantitative imaging of genetic circuits in plants, and (iv) genome-scale engineering in plants. (v) Software tools will be further improved for automated DNA assembly, modeling of synthetic gene circuits and cellular morphogenesis

Trait Engineering: The development of new foundational tools and parts will directly contribute to the engineering of new traits in plants, such as (i) altered photosynthesis and leaf structure, (ii) carbohydrate content, (iii) metabolic pathways, (iv) new forms of symbiosis and nitrogen fixation and (v) high level production of biomolecules by virus engines.

Open technologies for innovation: Current IP practices and restrictive licensing threaten to restrict innovation as the scale of DNA systems increases. We believe that the field needs to explore new "two-tier" intellectual property models that will protect investment in applications, while promote sharing of DNA components and freedom-to-operate for small companies in commercial applications of Synthetic Biology. We will create new forums and opportunities for open innovation in plant synthetic biology.

We will sponsor discussions in Cambridge on the potential impact of Synthetic Biology on sustainable practices in agriculture, bioproduction, land use and environmental conservation. This will bring together a wide range of engineers, scientists and policy developers to explore new technologies and possible models for sustainable agriculture, bioproduction and land use.

Planned Impact

A significant barrier to the ability of Synthetic Biology to have commercial impact in the UK is social acceptance of genetic modification. OpenPlant will engage with this issue scientifically by the development of precision gene technologies that can introduce desirable traits without the introduction of transgenes and by supporting research on traits such as nitrogen use that can significantly impact bioproduction. It will also engage through discourse on sustainable agriculture and land use and engagement with a variety of groups including conservationists, social scientists and policy developers.

The restrictive licensing of powerful technologies as well as the prohibitive cost of protecting IP for smaller enterprises threatens to impede the pace of research in plant synthetic biology. The OpenPlant centre aims to promote entrepreneurial activities though a framework that allows the exploration of open technologies and fixed-cost, non-exclusive licenses that can ensure that parts, techniques, libraries and materials have are available to facilitate both scientific exchange and commercial innovation.
 
Title Anxiety and Awe, a collection of poems by Norwich Scientists and Writers 
Description The 2015 NRP-UEA iGEM team worked with the Science and Writing Trust (SAW), to hold a workshop for established poets at the amazing Dragon Hall, a beautiful medieval building and home to the Norwich Writers Centre. At the workshop, we talked about our project, iGEM and bioengineering with established and published poets. We conducted writing exercises guided by the published poet, Esther Morgan in which we expressed our emotions, concerns and awe of science. This workshop resulted in a collaborative collection of poems by writers and scientists. The collection is published on our website (http://2015.igem.org/Team:NRP-UEA-Norwich/WritersWorkshop) and was presented at the iGEM Giant Jamboree, where it gained us a nomination for best communication. 
Type Of Art Creative Writing 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact The collection is published on our website (http://2015.igem.org/Team:NRP-UEA-Norwich/WritersWorkshop) and was presented at the iGEM Giant Jamboree, where it gained us a nomination for best communication. 
URL http://2015.igem.org/Team:NRP-UEA-Norwich/WritersWorkshop
 
Title Glowing oat seedlings 
Description Young oat seedling roots glow under UV due to the accumulation of the antimicrobial triterpene avenacins. Oats naturally produce avenacins exclusively within the root tip epidermal cells, which protects them from soil pathogens. Image supplied by researchers in the Osbourn laboratory at the John Innes Centre on the Norwich Research Park. 
Type Of Art Image 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact Image placed on the Norwich Research Park image library, for free sharing and dissemination. 
URL http://images.norwichresearchpark.ac.uk/imagedetails.aspx?imgid=229
 
Title Image of Nicotiana benthamiana 
Description Nicotiana benthamiana, a relative of the tobacco plant, is commonly used in plant research. Here, the leaf is used as a host org