A goal of plant engineering is to produce valuable resources from CO2 and solar energy while exploiting the natural advantages of plants as production platforms. Plants have highly specialised cell types and sophisticated development programs, resulting in specialist producer cells that are supported by non-producer parts. Plants are the only organisms that combine autotrophy and extensive multicellular differentiation, yet current engineering strategies fail to fully exploit the potential advantages of plants as chemical production systems. This action proposes to develop and demonstrate a crucial technical advance in plant engineering: developmentally-programmed gene knock-outs in specialised cell types.
Genetic knockout of competing metabolic pathways is essential to improving the yield of desirable metabolites. CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing in plants has been developed to the point where multiple homozygous gene knockouts can be made with high efficiency, but in all published examples the knockouts are systemic (i.e. present in every cell). I propose to introduce and validate a set of instructions that program the activation of CRISPR/Cas9 in specific cell types during plant development, resulting in gene deletions only in the targeted cells. The ability to produce chimeric plants with deliberately engineered specialist cell types is an essential step toward realising the potential of plant engineering. This action will generate intellectual property and a set of methods that will be useful to the wider plant research community. My broad experience in systems and synthetic biology and the world-class expertise of the host institution in plant biochemistry and light-driven biosynthesis are an ideal match for success in this action. Successful implementation will develop and diversify my skills while creating an ideal opportunity for independent career development, including attracting further funding and forming external collaborations.