For decades, the agricultural industry has utilized genetically modified (GM) crops to improve crop yields and eliminate losses due to pests and pathogens. However, gene flow—the transfer of genetic material between individuals within and among populations—may threaten agrobiodiversity. One example of this is cross pollination, which enables GM crops to out-compete their wild-type counterparts. Today, 7,000 plant species are available for human consumption, but just four crops (wheat, maize, rice and potato) provide half of the global plant-based energy intake and another 15 contribute two-thirds. Currently, indoor farming works to mitigate the risk of gene flow by providing some degree of control over the plants being grown. However, it has no inherent mechanism preventing the escape of transgenes.
The threat of gene flow is a major concern when it comes to preserving agrobiodiversity. Environments with an absence of UV-B light, such as indoor farms, may be utilized as part of the solution. Accordingly, a UV-B light-activated killswitch to implement in GM crops cultivated in a controlled environment has been proposed. This killswitch exploits RNAi to silence the WUSCHEL gene, a key player in plant development, ultimately preventing further growth.
Synthetic biology is a well established but ever-growing interdisciplinary field of research. The engineering of synthetic circuitry in bacterial, yeast, and animal systems have prompted considerable advances for the understanding and manipulation of genetic and metabolic networks. However, the implementation of these synthetic circuits in the plant field lags behind. Through our plant-based research, we found an underwhelming amount of existing applications in the plant field that utilize light-regulated (optogenetic) switches for the targeted control of cellular processes. This is surprising given the plethora of advantages that an optogenetic based approach. An optogenetic approach allows unparalleled spatiotemporal precision and reversible control over cellular signaling, overcoming the many limitations of chemically induced systems. Furthermore, it eliminates the toxic effect posed by a chemically-based approach, as an optogenetic approach depends on the wavelength of light being used.