Team:British Columbia/HP/Silver


Key Achievements

  • Interviewed Dr. Santa Ono, current President of the University of British Columbia, who discussed the importance of science communication and education.
  • Interviewed Dr. Linda Delli Santi, Executive Director of the BC Greenhouse Growers Association, who addressed the importance of the public perception and safety of our project.
  • Interviewed Dr. Guus Baakeren, a research scientist from Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, who brought up concerns about unwanted spreading of aGROW, and potential off-target effects of CRISPR
  • Interviewed Dr. Xin Li, whose work focuses on understanding the natural resistance mechanisms of plants against microbial pathogens. She encouraged us to use antibiotic assays when testing for our plasmids.
  • Interviewed Dr. Wanyin Deng, who has previous experience working with Agrobacterium tumefaciens in his PhD. He suggested including a plasmid maintenance system in our protoype.
  • Interviewed Dr. Cara Haney, whose lab studies the microbial communities associated with plant roots. She addressed concerns about the long term effects of CRISPR/Cas9 in the environment.
  • Interviewed Dr. Stanton Gelvin, whose lab studies how Agrobacterium tumefaciens genetically engineers plants. He noted that a different target gene would be more feasible for our project.

Interviews with Experts

Our team contacted Dr. Guus Bakkeren, a research scientist from Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC), a department within the Government of Canada responsible for regulating agriculture production, for his advice. We wanted his guidance as he worked with Agrobacterium in his graduate studies, and his current specialization is in plant-microbe interactions. While supportive of our project, Dr. Bakkeren brought up concerns with the potential of “high transferability spreading” of aGROW. Specifically, his concerns were that Rhizobia, a beneficial nitrogen-fixing bacteria and a close relative of Agrobacterium, could obtain the plasmid through conjugation. Additionally, he brought up the issue of potential off-target effects with the CRISPR gene editing.

Dr. Linda Delli Santi, the Executive Director of the B.C. Greenhouse Growers Association, spoke with our team to provide an industry perspective on our project. She emphasized that Crown Gall and Hairy Root are major concerns to the British Columbia agriculture industry and was excited that our team had chosen to address Agrobacterium pathogenicity. Her primary concern was the public perception of our project, as the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture can impact the consumer demand. She was also curious about how our bacteria could be released safely into the environment.

Dr. Xin Li’s lab at the Michael Smith Laboratories combines molecular genetics with biochemical and genomic approaches to understand the natural resistance mechanisms of plants against microbial pathogens. Her team works directly with A. tumefaciens, and we interviewed her to get her feedback so we could identify the potential shortfalls of our design. She was very excited that our team had taken an interest in plant pathogens and noted that methods to reduce crown gall and hairy root in the environment was an intriguing idea. She advised us to consider antibiotic assays as a testing method for both Ti plasmid reduction and pCambia inclusion.

Dr. Wanyin Deng, who currently works in the Finlay Lab at the Michael Smith Laboratories, had previously worked with A. tumefaciens during his PhD project. He is very passionate about A. tumefaciens and indicated that we would need to build mechanisms of positive selection in order to prevent plasmid loss. He also suggested that we link our CRISPR system targeting Ti plasmids to opines, in order to avoid background toxicity caused by CRISPR.

Dr. Cara Haney’s lab investigates the microbial communities associated with plant roots and we reached out to her for advice regarding the ecological impact our project. Her primary advice was that microbial conjugation was a difficult method of transfer, and was concerned about the long-term biosafety of an environmental system containing CRISPR/Cas9.

Dr. Stanton Gelvin, whose lab in Purdue University investigates how A. tumefaciens genetically engineers plants, was interviewed to determine how we could improve our project system. Dr. Gelvin indicated that rather than trying to upregulate conjugation through gene upregulation, a set of IncP plasmids have significant conjugation abilities. He also noted that our initially targeted gene, VirB6, was not as conserved as another virulence gene among all Agrobacterium and Rhizobium, VirD2.

Interview with UBC President

Clear science communication is essential and becomes even more important when it comes to new areas of research. With unfamiliar content, this can pose a significant challenge when educating people from a wide range of educational backgrounds, perspectives, and different levels of prior knowledge.

This year, one audience we wanted to connect with specifically were individuals who are highly educated but not knowledgeable in synthetic biology. As synthetic biology has the potential to draw from and influence many areas of research, it is imperative to start an open, multi-disciplinary conversation about future collaborations and to address different concerns.

We were fortunate enough to conduct an in-person interview with the 15th President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia, Professor Santa J. Ono.

Professor Ono obtained his PhD in Experimental Medicine and worked a professor of medicine and biology before stepping into his role as the University’s president. With aid from his biological background, Ono spoke elegantly about synthetic biology and our team’s aGrow project.

An abridged version of the interview is shown below and a full version of the interview can be found here.



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