There were a few good talks on day 3 - I didn't get a chance to write about any of them yesterday because it was almost straight from the conference to the conference dinner and then home late. On the plus side, a couple of late nights appears to have got rid of the jet lag. Now I'm just tired.
The best talk thou, was a surprise. Literally, the speaker, Chris Voigt, hadn't told anyone what he was going to be talking about. In the end, he was talking about the nitrogen fixing system in plants. Or at least in some of them.
Some who know me, know that I'm liable to occasionally go on a rant about growth and sustainability. As in we're growing, we're not going to stop it, it we need to control it and grow sustainably, especially when talking about feeding the word. Screw organics, it's a badly defined industry that isn't necessarily sustainable. Or even necessarily good for the environment. On the other hand, some of the industrial level farming that we currently do is not sustainable. Referring particularly to the large amounts of fertiliser that we produce and use. Why do we use so much? A lot of the plants that we grow for food, like grains etc, need nitrogen and they get it from the soil. They don't fix nitrogen out of the air. Some crops do, like legumes. Solution? Gt everyone to eat more beans. Good luck with that.
Another option, take the nitrogen fixing gene complex out of a plant that has it and put it into some of the plants that don't. Bam, there goes our need for large amounts of fertiliser. It's not that simple though, the complex of genes that regulate the nitrogen fixing process are, to be frank a mess. Evolution does't necessarily find the optimal solution, it finds a solution that works.
So Voigt's group took the complex out of Klebsellia - a bacteria that fixes nitrogen and have been re-factoring it. Re-factoring being a software engineering turn for taking something that doesn't work on a new platform, stripping it right back and building it back up again. It's a fairly complex system of 16 genes that are very much prone to stop working when there are minor changes in translation levels. They stripped out all the regulatory elements, even made a whole bunch of neutral mutations in the codon codes to remove any internal regulation and started modelling and experimenting with re-writing the regulatory process so that they would have a robust system that they can then put the whole shebang into a new system and get nitrogen fixation where previously, there was none.
And they've done it. They've gone from the base Klebsellia fixation system, essentially re-written it and put it into E. coli. It doesn't operate at the same efficiency (about 70% atm) but it does work. So a while before it gets put into plants and solves our fertiliser problems. Good idea though. And the work that they done to figure out how to control a specific system is quite frankly, superb.