Arabidopsis thaliana is often used in laboratories for genetics experiments. Image Credits: INRA DIST, Jean Weber (CC BY 2.0)

Can we hack plants?

Artificial molecular ‘machines’ could help us understand and reprogram plants

The genetic information of plants contains sets of instructions that shape a growing seedling. These ‘developmental programs’ are under the control of a range of hormones, such as auxin. Typically, the information from the hormones is relayed to the genetic material through proteins called transcription factors, which can act on DNA to turn specific genes on or off. Scientists have a good understanding of the roles of hormones, and they have created mathematical models that predict how changes in hormone levels affect the shape of a plant. However, it is still difficult to manipulate hormones inside a plant and test these models.

Here, Khakhar et al. created artificial transcription factors, referred to as HACRs, and put them into a plant called Arabidopsis thaliana. An HACR is made of different molecular modules stitched together. Each module has a precise role; for example, one turns off a specific gene, while another targets the HACR for destruction if a given hormone is present.

First, Khakhar et al. showed that HACRs could help track the levels of auxin in a developing plant. Arabidopsis plants were genetically engineered so that they would always produce a fluorescent protein. Then, an HACR was created that would switch off the gene for that fluorescent protein, so that no fluorescence would be present in the cell. If auxin was present, the HACR would get degraded, meaning fluorescence would appear. This helped to finely assess the amount of the hormone in various parts of the plant. By changing the modules in the HACRs, this approach could be applied to at least three other types of hormones.

Second, HACRs were used to reprogram Arabidopsis and change its appearance. For example, it is well known that auxin controls the number and location of branches on a plant. This complex process depends on how strongly auxin promotes the expression of a gene called PIN1. Khakhar et al. engineered an HACR that represses PIN1, and created a mathematical model that described the impact of this intervention. As predicted by the simulation, the HACR changed the strength of the relationship between PIN1 and auxin, which resulted in plants with fewer branches — a trait that is of interest in farming.

HACRs are a new type of technology that is likely to work in a wide range of species. Ultimately, these artificial transcription factors could help to engineer plants that can face the disruptions brought by climate change, which would ensure better food security for people around the world.

To find out more

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