The Wonderful World of Magic Plants

During school most people are left with the impression that plants are rather boring. Really, really boring, in fact; they do not move, or seem to have much going on in the way of anything at all. Even their reproduction is rather tame. Most of what makes plants quite badass, though, happens at the molecular level. Everyone is familiar with the idea that plants produce their own “food” from sunlight, but there are other, just as interesting facts about how plants work. Consider their immune system; unlike higher animals, plants have no mobile immune cells acting as cellular guard dogs which means that every cell in their, uhm, “body” has to have the same mechanisms for sensing and attacking invaders.

What if instead of growing plants for food or studying their intricate signalling pathways, we could actually use plants as biological factories? The premise is simple and there are good reasons why you would want to use plants for producing commercially useful proteins, such as those used in vaccines, rather than cell culture or eggs. Ever heard of ZMapp? The experimental treatment for Ebola relies on the molecular machinery of plants to make antibodies specific for fighting the virus. It is based on recombinant DNA technology (an explainer is available here) whereby a special type of bacteria, called Agrobacterium, is used to add the DNA of interest into the plant so that it can make a specific protein. In this case, ZMapp uses the DNA specific to making Ebola antibodies. It seems like such a foreign concept; how can a plant make something that it does not even use? Don’t forget, though, that all life uses the language of genes; everything that makes you, well, you is encoded in the 3 billion odd base pairs of DNA currently sitting in every cell (red blood cells excepted) which compose your body. And the machinery which makes sense of this stored information is practically universal (owing to common evolutionary origin), so a gene for making an Ebola antibody can easily be read and made by the plant. After all, DNA is a chemical and has no idea if it is supposed to be residing in a plant or not.

A hundred years ago, such technology would seem truly miraculous. Our understanding of the biology of things we cannot even see has come so far; the structure of DNA was not discovered until 1953, the mechanisms of how organisms get the information out of DNA was not discovered until many years after that. We can do so much more than even the researchers of twenty years ago; it is not uncommon to hear from senior researchers that they were given PhD’s for sequencing genes that can now be done in a matter of hours.

We are in an enviable position, I believe, but also a fragile one. How many protests have I seen against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which work on the same principle used to give diabetes patients the insulin they need, or the Ebola sufferers the treatment they require. Part of the problem is fear and the ideology which fuels it, but another part is wilful ignorance. No one would take a protest against transforming bacteria to produce insulin seriously, yet those who demonise the same technology used for a different purpose are given a preferential platform.

It is time that we took a long, hard look at ourselves and the society we want to create. It is evident that since the dawn of agriculture, humanity has taken steps towards making our lives better and more secure, something that we cannot simply abandon because there are some who feel that lives were somehow magically better thousands of years ago. There are problems with modernity and not all of them can be solved by technology, from pollution to overpopulation to rampant environmental destruction. I believe that there are ways to solve them, however hysterical anti-science protests will not get as nearer to that goal. Plants are magical, not in any mystically trivial way, but in a deeper sense, not just in how they work as an organism, but also in how our understanding of our mutual molecular underpinnings can be used to benefit humanity. That, I think, is a truth worth shouting down the street rather than the undertaking of a fit of brash censorship designed to invoke fear and conformity to a narrowly defined idea of how we think that world should work and how we should live in it.


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