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Synthetic Biosystems for the Production of High Value Plant Metabolites


Generating solutions




Competition in Applied Genomics Research in Bioproducts or Crops (ABC)

Genome Centre(s)



Project Leader(s)

Fiscal Year Project Launched


Project Description

It has been said that plants are the world’s best chemists. They can synthesize an immense diversity of molecules based on innumerable chemical- backbone structures and combinations of chemical-functional groups. The unparalleled biosynthetic capacity of plants has long been exploited through their use as traditional medicines and more recently the medical and commercial application of pure plant metabolites: pharmaceuticals (e.g. codeine, vinblastine, taxol); flavours (humulone, nootkatone, carvone); fragrances (jasmine, rose oil); pigments (carotenoids, anthocyanins, betalains); insecticides (pyrethrins), and other fine chemicals. The metabolic diversity of these compounds reflects the fundamental mechanisms that drive the evolution of plant natural products; plants interact with their environment mainly through chemical means and metabolites play diverse physiological roles from pathogen defence to pollinator attraction.

Plants produce these chemical products through metabolic biochemistry, relying on a staggering number of enzymes for biosynthesis. This catalytic diversity has remained largely untapped for the industrial production of high-value products.

We will use genomic tools coupled with analysis of metabolic products to identify genes from over 75 plants that can catalyze the synthesis of potentially important chemical compounds. Our principal tool will be ultra-high-throughput DNA sequencing to find interesting genes, followed by detection of chemical products synthesized under the direction of these genes. This will give us a “parts catalogue” of functional components. These components will be assembled into enzymatic pathways inside ordinary baker’s yeast cells, which can then be used for the production of new biological processes with specific industrial applications.

The main outcomes of this project are: (1) a public resource of genomic and metabolic information for 75 plants that produce a huge number of important natural products; (2) yeast strains that produce high-value natural plant products; (3) a catalogue of new enzymes for use as catalysts in synthetic biology applications; (4) the invention of functional-genomics methods for describing metabolic pathways and identifying unknown biosynthetic genes from plants; and (5) an analysis of regulatory, ethical, and economic subjects, which will help to ensure sound and responsible plant-technology development.

Integrated GE3LS Research: The Socio-Economic Impacts of Synthetic Biology
GE3LS Project Leader: Edna Einsiedel, University of Calgary
Synthetic biologists engineer new biological systems that do not exist in nature, using biological parts that are synthesized and combined in different arrangements. This approach gives rise to many questions related to economics, the environment, ethics, government regulations, intellectual property, commercialization and public acceptance. Our team will investigate some of these questions, concentrating particularly on four areas.

First, we will examine the economic feasibility of synthetic biology as an industrial business model and innovation platform. We will explore the proposition that the synthetic biology approach ought to reduce production costs for many different useful plant-based products.

Second, we will analyze concerns arising from intellectual property and patents. There are two: the possibility that pre-existing patents could limit research or cause problems for future commercialization; and appropriate intellectual property policies for new products and processes resulting from synthetic biology research.

Third, we will investigate current government policies and regulations regarding novel plants and their applicability to the products of synthetic biology: whether the products of synthetic biology should be regulated the same or differently from the products of genetic engineering; whether there should be new regulations or mandatory labeling of synthetic-biological products; questions of safety and possible harm to the ecosystem of uncontrolled release of synthetic organisms.

Fourth, we will assess public views of synthetic biology. What does synthetic biology entail and how does it differ from genetic engineering of conventional production processes for plant products? Since the science of synthetic-biology is evolving rapidly, we will develop a continuous process for discussions among the interested public and scientists..