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The Algal Chloroplast as a Testbed for Synthetic Biology Designs Aimed at Radically Rewiring Plant Metabolism

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Jackson, Harry O. 
Taunt, Henry N. 
Mordaka, Pawel M. 
Smith, Alison G. 
Purton, Saul 


Sustainable and economically viable support for an ever-increasing global population requires a paradigm shift in agricultural productivity, including the application of biotechnology to generate future crop plants. Current genetic engineering approaches aimed at enhancing the photosynthetic efficiency or composition of the harvested tissues involve relatively simple manipulations of endogenous metabolism. However, radical rewiring of central metabolism using new-to-nature pathways, so-called “synthetic metabolism”, may be needed to really bring about significant step changes. In many cases, this will require re-programming the metabolism of the chloroplast, or other plastids in non-green tissues, through a combination of chloroplast and nuclear engineering. However, current technologies for sophisticated chloroplast engineering (“transplastomics”) of plants are limited to just a handful of species. Moreover, the testing of metabolic rewiring in the chloroplast of plant models is often impractical given their obligate phototrophy, the extended time needed to create stable non-chimeric transplastomic lines, and the technical challenges associated with regeneration of whole plants. In contrast, the unicellular green alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is a facultative heterotroph that allows for extensive modification of chloroplast function, including non-photosynthetic designs. Moreover, chloroplast engineering in C. reinhardtii is facile, with the ability to generate novel lines in a matter of weeks, and a well-defined molecular toolbox allows for rapid iterations of the “Design-Build-Test-Learn” (DBTL) cycle of modern synthetic biology approaches. The recent development of combinatorial DNA assembly pipelines for designing and building transgene clusters, simple methods for marker-free delivery of these clusters into the chloroplast genome, and the pre-existing wealth of knowledge regarding chloroplast gene expression and regulation in C. reinhardtii further adds to the versatility of transplastomics using this organism. Herein, we review the inherent advantages of the algal chloroplast as a simple and tractable testbed for metabolic engineering designs, which could then be implemented in higher plants.



Plant Science, crop improvement, chloroplast, synthetic biology, transplastomics, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii

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Frontiers in Plant Science

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Frontiers Media S.A.