Gold-of-Pleasure: the plant-based factory
Plants are incredible organisms with innumerable applications for advancing the human condition. Of course, we need plants to produce the oxygen that we breath, and the food we eat. However they posses many more facets that can be utilized for, well, saving the world. They can cleanse soils of salts and toxic heavy metals through a process known as bioremediation. Flowers and trees can be used in urban environments to simultaneously beautify, reduce pollution, attract pollinators, and provide food for animals (ourselves included).
As humans, we rely on chemistry to produce everything from pharmaceuticals to plastics. What many may fail to realize is that nature relies on factories too, in the form of plants and microbes. In fact, every organism is its own chemical factory producing metabolites for energy, and in many cases, secondary compounds for defense and volatiles for signaling. Plants are no exception, each producing a remarkable number of chemicals for survival and proliferation.
Plants can be manipulated in a variety of ways to produce more or less of the compounds that we, as humans, are interested in. We have long had this ability through artificial selection and domestication, and recently we've been able to make rapid, targeted changes to elicit desired outcomes. Genetic engineering has already produced crops that require less herbicide and insecticide, and others that are more nutritious; the future applications are incalculable. While we have already engineered yeast to produce compounds of interest, the process is intensive, requiring production in a laboratory setting. Furthermore, the yeast system is limited by its "primitive" metabolic pathways. Plants on the other hand have more complex enzymatic and metabolic networks which may be utilized to produce more specialized compounds. Camelina, in particular is well-suited to this for several reasons. Its close relationship to Arabidopsis means that much of the genetic and enzymatic architecture is easily elucidated from the extraordinarily well-studied model organism. Furthermore, Camelina can be readily transformed with exogenous genes that may be used to produce an almost endless number of compounds. The very short generation time of Camelina means that creation of stable transgenic lines can be done quickly. The high oil-content of Camelina is especially favorable for the production of lipid-based and lipid-soluble chemicals, which accumulate in the oil rich seeds. Collection and purification of chemicals of interest in these seeds offers a mass-production system for expensive pharmaceuticals and oils. Some of the most highly sought-after chemicals require expensive and complex multi-step synthesis in laboratories, often the case for efficacious cancer drugs. However, with the appropriate research and development, plants like Camelina may serve as plant-based chemical factories, bypassing the need for laboratory synthesis.