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Could Smart Plants Be the Answer to the World’s Food Shortage?

The world’s population is expected to approach 10 billion by 2050. At the same time, the Earth’s climate is changing, impacting the ecosystems in which our crops grow.

So how are we going to feed all those people? A recent paper published in Nature Plants says synthetic biology is the answer.

Also known as SynBio, this young field incorporates knowledge from areas like molecular biology, engineering, and evolutionary biology to design or redesign living systems. The paper, by Professor Eleanore Wurtzel (The Graduate Center, Lehman College) and colleagues, proposes using SynBio to “improve” crops by making them grow more efficiently and respond better to environmental changes, thus producing more food.

As an example, the authors calculate that it could take a species of maize about 350,000 years to change one enzyme into another type of enzyme via natural evolution, whereas “directed evolution” in a lab could do this much more quickly.

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

SynBio crops might sound similar to GMOs (genetically modified organisms)—and the two might use the same technologies, Wurtzel said—but the difference is in the approach. SynBio utilizes engineering principals by incorporating repeated cycles of designing, testing, building, and learning to figure out what works best. Facilities will be needed to support this iterative approach, as will continued research in basic plant science and plant biochemistry. In addition, biologists should be taught to think with more of an engineering and problem-solving mindset.

For SynBio to become a reality, researchers will also need to work with the public and stakeholders to avoid the backlash that GMO research has experienced.

“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,” Wurtzel said.