Any biologist dreamed of dancing molecules.
A breakthrough scientific idea emerged in the head of Professor Kevin M. Folta, at the time he was cutting the grass. If trees never grow, he will not have to do this hard work.
But how to create a slow growing grass? You can exploit the genetic vulnerabilities of plants, by injecting them with a mixture of trillions of random DNA. Of those billions of DNA, any herb has a DNA that slows the growth of large plants. We just screen and find it.
Professor Folta is currently the Dean of Crop Science at the University of Florida. With 30 years of experience and research in the field of plant physiology and molecular biology, he said the approach like playing this lottery is not only applied to plants.
We can also use it on bacteria or animals to find new antibiotics or human healing methods. Below is the story shared by Professor Folta:
The iPod ran out of battery in the middle of me cutting the grass. Instead of enjoying musical melodies, my brain wanders about molecules. Several times of mowing I considered the biggest question in my scientific career:
Can we randomly inject chemical elements into the organism, to discover new drugs or useful compounds for agriculture?
My professional knowledge revolves around the field of molecular biology – the study of DNA, genes, the way the blueprints are decoded and assembled into life. Subjects require me to know how “decode” molecular codes are, when they turn into biological functions.
Not just me, anyone in this field ever dreamed of dancing molecules. They interact with each other and perform the function of turning information stored in DNA into food, into plants around us and into my family and friends.
Every day, molecular biology researchers sit in the lab and move genes one after another. Simple operations. It doesn’t mean doing this will create anything new, but gene transfer is used as a research tool that allows us to understand how each specific gene works.
A good example is the NPR1 gene, originally only in Arabidopsis. It is a defense gene that helps Arabidopsis fight disease. But you just need to get NPR1 out and move into the genome of any other tree, they will also enhance their resistance to disease.
Such genetic manipulations have now become extremely popular. We do this every day with plants, bacteria and on some animals.
But in one cut, I suddenly came up with an idea – instead of inserting into plants or bacterial interesting DNA information that we all know, what if we put them in a mess? random DNA codes?
Can we identify random genetic information that produces small pieces of protein called peptides, which act as physiological changes as well as the growth of organisms?
Normally, DNA encodes a guide that regulates the order of amino acids, likened to building bricks on proteins. Each amino acid has specific chemical properties. When combined together, they become peptides, then into proteins.
Proteins help form cell structures or take on biological functions, depending on the composition and order of amino acids, what constitutes it.
My hypothesis is that even a short piece of DNA in a mess can generate a new series of amino acids. It may be a small cluster of discrete chemical molecules that have never existed before on the planet.
Perhaps most of these molecular clusters don’t make sense, they become cell junk. But it is also possible that on a rare occasion, they will create something completely new that we want.
To test this hypothesis, our team used non-system templates to synthesize trillions of random pieces of DNA, using a simple DNA replication technique. Each DNA segment contains genetic instructions for plants to begin and produce a peptide.
Later, we used a basic genetic modification technique, moving these DNA fragments into thousands of Arabidopsis thaliana plants. The final task is to sit back to see what happens or not, when the tree turns random genetic information into random peptides.
We expect special protein structures to participate in biochemical reactions. And that will be shown on the trait of the tree, which is usually visible to the eye.
When Arabidopsis thaliana plants grew, they really surprised people.
Some plants flower early. Some other plants are small and stunted. Others produce larger leaves. Some appear purple. There are a number of Arabidopsis thaliana plants that have grown very well to a stage and naturally die.
After that, we rediscovered specific random DNA sequences that we added to each tree. This is also not difficult for a molecular biologist. We moved each DNA back into a bunch of new plants.
As a result, most randomized DNA has created a uniform change in the new generation of plants. The effect proves that the genetic information itself is the source of transformation.
What are random genetic information doing in the cell? They guide plants to create other small random molecules, which may inadvertently affect a particular process in plants.
These molecules can bind an essential nutrient. They can inhibit a key enzyme. They can also cause plants to flower or protect it from freezing in the winter.
No one knows exactly what they will do, until the plants in the experiment show each and every trait outside. New proteins have created a good model so we can design useful molecules, with similar chemical properties but more stable in cells.
Our goal is to produce a compound that can be applied to plants to change their growth and traits, such as preventing weed growth.
The process will be like letting a monkey control a complex machine. Most of the time, monkeys joke and don’t affect anything. But if you let the monkey play with the machine for a long time, then it will come once when it slips a gear somewhere that stops the machine.
Sometimes the process can shorten a wasteful process, turning it off makes the machine more efficient. These peptides are molecular macaques.
Some peptides have apparently been able to interfere with an important biological process, because it kills the experimental plant. These findings show that plants also clearly have deadly holes, where researchers can exploit to develop environmentally friendly non-toxic herbicides.
Our agriculture is now dependent on some chemicals, fossil fuels or even human labor to control weeds. The ultimate goal is to prevent them from competing for nutrients and resources with plants.
So, just fine grass control, we have increased the value of fertilizer, water and sunlight. New generation herbicide methods will be very valuable for current agriculture, as the population is growing and we need more and more food.
But it will not stop at plants, we are using a similar approach to find the next generation of antibiotics. The goal is to identify random genetic information that has affected a suspected bacterium.
For example, we can target S. aureus, a dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacterium. We are looking for new molecules that can kill these bacteria, while not affecting other bacteria that are thought to be beneficial. These experiments are being conducted right in our lab.
So random things are likely to help us find gaps, as well as untapped potential in plants, bacteria and other organisms. It is possible that this work will open up applications to help solve human illness.
There is an interesting future when we exploit large collections of new molecules, and study how they combine with biological processes to produce the important results we want.
In this work, we have discovered a number of molecules that inhibit the growth of plants. Future products can be used to create non-large grasses. However, while others may find this product useful, I will refuse to use it. By me, mowing grass makes great ideas appear.