Best Synthetic Plant
Synechococcus elongatus UTEX2973: The root of all plants and the root of the solution
The power of disruptive technologies
Humanity’s hunger for discovery could never be satisfied and will never cease to exist. We as a species managed to overcome our environmental limitations: We learned to grow crops to be independent from the natural availability of food around us. It led to the development of culture and society and was the birth of the human race as an intelligent and highly social complex species. The discovery of the Haber-Bosch-Process revolutionized agriculture, catalyzing the amount of food grown by breaking down the amount of work to a fraction of what it was before. The result was the growth of metropoles, people moved into the cities, a new spirit of innovation and creativity was born, bringing great discoveries in arts, natural science, medicine and politics. All major key points in human history were preceded by the discovery of disruptive technologies like agriculture and steam power and so was also one of human greatest dreams: the discovery of human flight.
The windtunnel as metaphor of innovation of catalysis
The dream of human flight is as old as tales: the Greek spoke of Daidalos, a man of great genius who invented wings for him and his son Icarus. Greek mythology was already aware of the opportunities and the great dangers that would come with flight and other powers of modern day technology. Despite this fascination for flight, why did it take humanity so long to discover real heavier-than-air flight?
Early industrialization saw the rise and fall of many first prototypes, but it was not until the Wright Brothers came that the old human dream could be achieved. They were two brothers with no access to any higher education and virtually no funds to finance their endeavour but they managed to design a working airplane faster than companies that hired trained engineers and invested millions into this project thanks to a remarkable intention that is often overlooked in the history: the wind tunnel.
Before the wind tunnel, the science of aeronautics could not grab a foothold, as the construction of an aircraft was time intensive and very expensive. Additionally a technical fault could easily lead to the loss of a pilot, which meant to aeronautics the loss of great minds of engineering as well. The wind tunnel however changed that in a radical way:
Thanks to this device, the Wright brothers could test well over 200 wing designs on the ground before having to test any of the prototypes in the real world. This high throughput testing of design did not only accelerate the test by hundredfold, it also saved a lot of resources and many lives. Their work advanced aeronautical engineering by light years and changed their methodology forever, with the invention of the wind tunnel modern flight would not be possible by today.
UTEX 2973 is the phototrophic wind tunnel of Synthetic Biology
The lesson that we as scientists in the area of phototrophic Synthetic Biology can learn from these engineers is a universal one: If we want to propel science we need to find a way to disrupt our methodology. If we want to bring the speed at which new discoveries are made to a new level, we need a way to accelerate it in a way that multiplies our output. We need a wind tunnel. In a world of slow growing model organisms compared to heterotrophs our biggest limitation is the cultivation of a phototrophic species.
UTEX 2973 will be the key to open up this area: With its unpreceded doubling time of below 80 minutes it outranges every plant and every other cyanobacteria, it is in fact the fastest doubling cell in the world using only sunlight. This brings up the opportunity to do large scale rapid prototyping in this chassis to test first sketches from the drawing board: if you want to insert a new metabolic pathway in a plant, the way to determine the optimal combination of enzymes and promoters would be to first prototype it in UTEX 2973. These tests can then be utilized to go back to the design and reapply the learned to improve the system. In this way, UTEX 2973 massively accelerates the Design Build Test Learn cycle, the heart piece of Synthetic Biology.