To feed the planet we’ll have to build the plants that evolution did not.
We need to revolutionise agriculture. In 2050 we might have almost 10 billion people to feed. Farmland is currently degraded by agricultureclimate change is putting new pressure on plants and livestock.
With the resources we have now we can not create new breeds and cultivars enough to cope with the quickly changing requirements. How can we get yields in environments that are uncertain and make food?
Part of the answer is synthetic biology: using technology to build organisms that development never did. Synthetic biology has had a few successes, like turning yeasts into miniature chemical factories and giving cotton the qualities of artificial fibres.
At CSIRO, we have used synthetic biology to generate feed. Our scientists have’switched ‘ high oil production in the stems and leaves of plants, which could triple the total amount of oil that they produce.
However, these examples are just the start.
What is chemistry?
Artificial biology applies engineering theory to biological systems. It relies on a standard kit of biological’parts’ such as genes that may be combined to create complex subcellular machines, circuitry, apparatus and even whole cells and complicated engineered organisms.
This implies other biological systems and cells can be designed like circuit boards. Methods which have been effective in different fields of engineering – like design-build-test-learn cycles, robotic assembly methods and using artificial intelligence algorithms to extract meaning from large data sets – could currently be utilized on life to quickly improve engineered cows.
For example, breathing may operate in several distinct ways, and some of these are much more effective than our lungs. Evolution does not necessarily deliver the best answer – one which allows an organism survive in a given niche is just delivered by it.
So, for any given problem solutions may exist in biology compared to the ones already available. Artificial Science lets us research this untested’solution space’ more quickly than development – on a timescale of weeks or months, rather than years or millennia. Synthetic biology therefore lets us explore areas where evolution has never gone and sometimes, probably never would go. It means we can achieve outcomes chosen to meet with wants, instead of pressures.
Changing the system
There are, to take advantage of biology.
I recently met with colleagues from all over the world to explore these struggles for agricultural artificial biology and we have just published our decisions in Nature Plants. We concurred that artificial intelligence is changing not just what we deliver but we do this kind of science.
Designing high-throughput bioengineering experiments is rather different from the bespoke, master-craftsperson strategy we’ve used before. It needs a conceptual and cultural shift that has to happen in a rather brief time period. Faculties will need to modernise their teaching applications to maintain pace.
In addition, we will need to build robotic infrastructure (known as’biofoundries’), produce faster analytical systems to handle testing, and create new data-analysis approaches and machine-learning algorithms. A global alliance of biofoundries was built to help push on this science.
Standard research into the basic principles of the systems we plan to engineer must also be supported. We can’t engineer efficiently unless we are aware of the system we’re modifying. Engineering in turn helps our comprehension of that system.
An opportunity for Australia
Australia has recognized the significance of biology. This is currently a A$60 million development and research program with 45 partners nationally and globally.
It features a powerful investment in social sciences and accountable innovation. In CSIRO, synthetic biology is used to make cotton with the properties of synthetic fibres, such as becoming stretchy, non-creasing and even waterproof. This avoids using petrochemicals, and the cotton stays biodegradable.
And we’re engineering yeast – the same yeast used to make wine beer and bread – to create agricultural compounds that are sustainable. So they take up more 20, plants and their relationships can change with germs in the roots. We’ve got much to do along with a short time to do it in. We need to explore uncharted territory beyond development to solve the existential problems that agriculture faces. The biology tools and techniques we are developing will be critical to deliver the agriculture we want in a future.