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- Scientists have created a partially synthetic version of moss for industrial use.
- This could lead to new methods for producing medicines and other products.
- The project is a milestone in synthetic biology for multicellular organisms.
A new era in synthetic biology
A team of researchers has recently reported significant progress in synthetic biology. They have succeeded in creating a partially synthetic version of the genome for a type of moss, known as spreading earth moss (Physcomitrium patens).
This work, published in Nature Plants, is not only an important step towards the development of fully artificial plant genomes but also a demonstration of the potential to use moss as a factory for manufacturing medicines and other products.
The breakthrough with moss
The research group focused on a part of a chromosome in the selected species. Although the project only covered part of the chromosome, experts emphasize the importance of this work. Ian Ehrenreich, a synthetic genome researcher at the University of Southern California, calls it "a necessary step" towards a completely artificial plant genome. Tom Ellis, a synthetic biologist at Imperial College London, sees it as a wake-up call for those who believe that synthetic genomes only apply to microorganisms.
By redesigning an organism's genome, researchers can explore questions about which sequences are necessary and how organization affects gene function. They can also give the organism new abilities, potentially increasing its value in agriculture, industry, medicine, and other areas.
Technological advances and future goals
Instead of creating chromosomes from scratch, synthetic biologists have started with natural ones and made various changes and simplifications. The researchers behind the project, SynMoss, chose to start with a part of chromosome 18's short arm, the smallest such part in the plant's 26-chromosome genome. They trimmed and cleaned up the DNA, eliminated transposons (mobile DNA elements found in eukaryotes), and made other adjustments. This reduced that part of the chromosome by 56 percent.
The modified plants proved to be normal in size and shape and were as resistant to high salt concentrations and other stress factors as their natural counterparts. The results support the controversial view that transposons are not necessary for multicellular eukaryotes.
Researchers have already exploited earth moss to produce certain chemicals, and a drug synthesized by genetically modified versions of the plant is currently under clinical trials. The SynMoss project is expected to further strengthen these efforts by paving the way for even greater and more useful changes. Ralf Reski, a plant biologist at Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg, who has been studying the moss since 1985, believes that this work takes plant genetics to the next level.
Dai, Jiao, and their colleagues are now planning to tackle the rest of chromosome 18's short arm and thereafter a completely synthetic moss genome. "We aim to complete this within the next 10 years," says Dai.