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Nanomaterials July 2019 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Madeeha Uppal

Gene Delivery in Plants

Why is this topic significant?

Regulation concerning genetically modified organisms is becoming more stringent. Researchers are developing gene-delivery methods that provide the same outcomes that genetic modification provides, without modification of the cell genome.

Description

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), have developed a method for delivering genes into chloroplasts in plant cells without integrating the genes into the plant's genome. The method employs positively charged carbon nanotubes, enabling negatively charged DNA to attach to the nanotubes. The nanotubes are 300 nanometers (nm) long—which is long enough to attach a number of genes—and 1 nm wide—which is small enough to easily penetrate plant-cell walls and reach chloroplasts intact. The researchers used the method in arugula, cotton, tobacco, and wheat cells. UC Berkeley scientists believe that users can produce the new DNA-functionalized carbon nanotubes at scale and then transport and store them for months.

Another group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is also developing new materials that use carbon nanotubes to transport genes into plant cells. The MIT scientists attached DNA for a fluorescent protein on single-walled carbon nanotubes covered in chitosan. The scientists injected the material into plant cells through the stomata, and the nanotubes traveled through the cell and entered chloroplasts, where they delivered the DNA. The new material delivered DNA in a variety of vegetable leaves. The injected gene led to production of protein in 47% of the plant cells, and the scientists believe that a higher concentration of nanotubes could increase this percentage.

Implications

Modifying plants can be beneficial for many industries, including the agriculture, fuels, and pharmaceuticals industries. Gene editing in plant cells is difficult, because plant cells are protected by strong cell walls. In fact, chloroplasts have two cell membranes and an additional cell wall, making penetration in to the cells even harder. Standard approaches for gene editing in plants include plant infection with modified bacteria and biolistic bombardment. The former method is unsuitable for many plant species and involves gene editing of bacteria, a time-consuming technique; the latter method often destroys the host cell. Additionally, both methods have low yields and result in genetic modification of the cell. Using nanotubes for gene delivery as shown by the teams at UC Berkeley and MIT has the advantage of modifying plant cells in a way that the cells can produce novel proteins without actually altering the genome of the cell. Both nanotubes-based methods also are simple, can serve a range of plant species, and do not require specialized equipment typically in use with gene editing.

Impacts/Disruptions

Scientists looking to edit plant cells permanently, without the associated genetically modified–organism label, could potentially use this method to deliver plasmids (small DNA molecules physically separated from chromosomal DNA) into plant cells. By using plasmids that contain editing sequences such as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), scientists could edit the plant-cell genome after the plant itself produces gene-editing enzymes. Although governments are striving to update regulation to include novel gene-editing technologies, regulating bodies will still need to make a clear distinction between genetically modified and gene-edited products. Greater awareness about such a difference is likely to increase public trust in new plant products that result from the new gene-editing technologies.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Bioengineering, agriculture, synthetic biology

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Checking Cleanliness of Surfaces

Why is this topic significant?

The number of foodborne illnesses caused by consumption of food contaminated with pathogens, chemicals, and other impurities remains high. A new method that quickly checks whether surfaces are clean may help reduce cross-contamination of food.

Description

Keeping food-preparation surfaces and environments clean and hygienic by regular disinfecting can prevent infection with foodborne pathogens. Some research shows that using detergent-based cleaning methods are ineffective at removing pathogens from surfaces, and experts advise sanitization of surfaces after washing for adequate cleanliness. However, chemicals can leave residues, and consumption of food with chemical contamination can have long-term detrimental effects. London, England–based start-up Fresh Check has developed an easy-to-use spray that can check contaminations on surfaces. The spray contains a dye bound to iron that is less than 100 nanometers in size. The presence of bacteria, reactive chemicals such as those present in disinfectants, debris, and changes in pH result in the dye's changing color. By applying the spray on surfaces, users can visually test for contamination within 30 seconds by means of a color change. Independent studies by Campden BRI—a company that provides advisory services for the food-and-drink industry—show that Fresh Check spray is as accurate at identifying contamination as are other testing methods currently in use in the food-and-drink industry. Fresh Check is also using its technology to develop wipes and hopes to research food-spoilage labels and infection-monitoring bandages.

Implications

Common methods for testing pathogenic contamination include detection of protein and adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a chemical released by cells. Detection of ATP relies on taking a swab from the surface. However, distribution of dirt and contamination on a surface is often uneven, and the swab area may be a poor representation of the entire surface. In the cases for inspection of large surfaces, the Fresh Check spray is likely more suitable. Furthermore, swabbing and protein-detection methods fail to check for chemical contamination, are generally more expensive than the Fresh Check spray, and involve users' conducting a number of steps to obtain results. The Fresh Check spray requires an additional rinsing step after testing only, which the company's wipes may eliminate if they prove to be as accurate as the spray is.

Impacts/Disruptions

Food manufacturers and food-production facilities such as abattoirs and restaurants need to demonstrate the efficacy of their cleaning protocols. Use of a spray would not only provide a quick and inexpensive method of doing so, but could also help to train staff in effective cleaning procedures. The Fresh Check spray also has potential applications in hospitals and medical facilities, where staff could quickly identify areas with bacterial contamination by using the spray. Timely intervention could then decrease the spread of hospital-acquired infections, which cost billions of dollars for health care and millions of lives every year.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Low to Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Food-and-beverage industry, medical facilities, food preparation, food-quality control

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: