Understanding plants for human and environmental use

June Medford, Colorado State University

What I'm going to talk about is things I care about and how the genome write project can make a big difference. In Colorado, we care about environmentally sustainable systems. We want to use plants to design systems that are sustainable. Think about how we got to where we are today. Humans have long searched field and forest for materials for shelter; there's no reason to do that anymore, we can design our future to be sustainable. We are technolgically able today to grow a house, literally we are able to grow a house. We could do that today.

I want to talk about how we can design things to produce sustainable systems, what have we already done and what's within our reach in the next few months?

Why plants?

They have their onboard energy generating systems, they self-assemble and they self-repair. They have had a 4 billion year headstart on environmenally-friendly traits. So we should look at that. One of the systems we have already developed is a computationally-enabled sensors for phytodetectors. We have proteins to bind to substances of interests, designed by David Baker, and then we encode them into DNA and express in plants. These are our first generation plants, I put about 10 nanomolar of the explosive TNT in the agar, our plants detect that and report that in the chute, and the plants are indeed responding to TNT in both the soil and in the chute and in the air they can detect that too. The amount we are detecting is really quite good; we have a comptutaionally-designed sensors, we can detect 23 parts per trillion. In case you haven't done the math, that's 1 drop in an olympic sized swimming pool, about 10-100 times better than dogs. With gp-write, we can make this even better.

We have a design in the lab for DIG -- computational design to lab chemical. We want to detect brief exposure. When Jef Boeke is going to sneak a bomb somewhere, he's not going to put it next to my plants, my plants have that much time to detect the bomb. So, one expxosure, the ligand binds it, the expression lasts for 3 days.

In the future, airports will just be trees and plants instead of taking off your belt and shoes and showing the computer. Phytodetectors today can detect this.

Where can we go with gp-write?

Nature has had a 4 billion year headstart, let's go back and learn from nature and adapt traits for human and environmental use. For example, one thing that everyoen in this room, or in the lab or watching at home or whatever-- we all need water.

Here in NY there's elaborate systems to purify water so that we can flush the toilets, drink coffee or do whatever. It takes a huge amount of money to make water and make it pure. Plants naturally filter and secrete or seep water. This is a photograph of some plants growing in my lab. If you can see overhere on the right, there's wate rdroplets. This is not dew, these are plants that pick up water and secrete it out of their leaves. This is a natural process, I did not invent this. If you look a....

What we want to do is use these traits to engineer plants to purify and filter water, to filter out greywater and filter out contaminants. One of the greatest limits to life on earth is water. Imagine that the way we deal with this now in the west is we desalinate water. You can't see this from aquaifers, we pump that dry. However, water is abundant on earth. Most of this is just a tad bit salty. So imagine if we could with projects such as genome-write develop positively ways to filter, if we could do this, to filter sea water, we can do unlimied water for life and sustainable life on planet earth. Thanks. Glad to answer any questions.