Scientists creating plants that make their own fertilizer
A single mega transfer
The scientists have chosen their proof-of-principle project very carefully to maximize the odds it will work.
Cyanothece 51142 is particularly attractive as a parts source for the project because it has the largest contiguous cluster of genes related to nitrogen fixation of any cyanobacterium. Roughly 30 genes are part of the same functional unit under the control of a single operating signal, or promoter.
The scientists hope this cluster of genes can be moved to another cyanobacterial strain in a single mega-transfer. The one they’ve picked as the host, Synechocystis 6803, is the best studied strain of cyanobacteria. Not only has its genome been sequenced, it is naturally “transformable” and able to integrate foreign DNA into its genome by swapping it with similar native strands of DNA.
But it’s actually the next step in the project that will provide the greater challenge for Pakrasi and his team. The scientists will need to figure out how to connect the transplanted nitrogen-fixing gene cluster to Synechocystis’ clock. “Like every cyanobacterium,” Pakrasi says, “ Synechocystis has a diurnal rhythm. But how to tap into that rhythm we don’t know yet. We have some ideas we’re going to test, but that’s where the challenge lies.”
Overcoming the challenge of sustainably producing food for a world population of more than 7 billion while reducing pollution and greenhouse gases will require more than luck. Odds are it will take a daring, “out of the box” idea like this one.
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