Plant power – The ultimate way to go green: Birger Lindberg Møller at TEDxCopenhagen 2012

I am going to introduce you to what I hope is going to be your new very best friends, namely, the plants. Plants are fantastic organisms. They produce a lot of things, they supply us with food and lots of the items we are surrounding ourselves with every day. But the way we make these plant materials is not very sustainable. We need some changes here. And actually, the plants can show us some of the solutions we have to go for. So this is what I want to talk to you about today, and how we can do this and why we can do it and then sciencewise mention that synthetic biology is really the research area which is going to make these changes, game changes, possible. So, first of all: without plants, none of you would exist. Do you fully realise that? Every life sitting in this room here is dependent on the existence of plants. And so are all other people on this planet. You may not necessarily live in such a lush tropical environment as here, but nevertheless, this woman is surrounded and supported by plants exactly the same way as you are.

The plants provide foods, they provide the feasts, and now they provide biofuels for us to use. The fantastic thing about plants also, the plant growth is fuelled by solar light. So, solar light is the strongest natural source of energy we got. Just think of it. If you go to the cinema to watch a movie. You enter the cinema and start the movie, at the end of the movie, the sun would have showered the Earth with just as much energy as a whole human population is using for a year. So the plants are not only providing us with foods and materials, they are also the key gate to getting the sun energy utilised on our planet. Plants can do more than that. They also have a very strong and loud language. They talk to each other. You can say: Talk? I never heard a plant talk… But they sure do, they talk loudly and very clearly. It's just you who can't hear. The language of the plants, that's called complex chemistry. Plants make more than 200,000 different chemicals.

There is no other language which has that many different words. Plants can't move around. They are sessile. They can't escape when somebody comes to chew them up. So that's why they have these compounds which they use, produce to prevent all kinds of fungi or vira or insects to eat them. So, let me just give you one example. This is the compound Taxol which is isolated from a tree called the Pacific yew tree, which is shown in the front of this slide with its dark green leaves. Taxol is a very important anti cancer agent. It's the best compound we have in combination treatments. The structure of Taxol is listed at the lower part of the slide, and I fully realise that not everyone of you tomorrow morning when you wake up will remember this structure very very precisely. (Laughter) But as a plant biochemist, I'm just..

. I just fell in love with such complex structures. The function they have, what they are doing to the plants is really fascinating. If we look at this slide again, this compound here, when you think of it, when a plant can make such a structure, it makes me think that plants can make everything for you you want. In the laboratory, chemists can start to synthesise a lot of these molecules. These processes are very very time consuming, they use a lot of chemicals, toxic chemicals, use a lot of energy and produce a lot of waste. So this is not a good sustainable alternative. But the plants make the compounds. But unfortunately, many of the compounds are made in very very small amounts. Or they are only made by plants who are very rare and who we cannot cultivate. So we have a dilemma here: we have all these natural products being made by the plants. Some of them are really potent drugs which we would really like to cure severe diseases and we cannot get hold of them.

So our approach has been: why not work with the plants? Why not be collaborating producers of these compounds? And I will show you how we envision this to be done. So, this is the structure of the plant cell. And it may look a bit complicated but it certainly isn't. You just need to focus on two items: in the front, you have the chloroplast, coloured in green. that's where the light energy is harvested, photosynthesis takes place and energy is produced. Then, you have in the upper right, the brown area looking like mountain ranges with snow — this is where what is called the endoplasmatic reticulum — I will not say this word again — (Laughter) this is where the beautiful chemistry takes place. This is where plants are world champions at doing chemistry. So now, we have these two entities. What happens now if we put them together? Then we would have what we call light driven synthesis.

So you use the light energy directly to produce these compounds instead of letting the plant grow. So, we have these two systems and we'd like to get them together. And we have two sweethearts, we can call them Fred and Nana, who are representing these organelles. Fred is standing here, he is supercharged with energy because of photosynthesis. Restless. Then you have Nana here, (Laughter) She does want to participate but she misses the energy to get going. Now, what we want to do is to bring these two together. (Laughter and applause) Thank you. And if we can have the slide again, (Laughter) (Applause and whistles) This is a way to produce a lot of these chemicals we want. So there are may different Freds and Nanas which you can combine in plant biochemistry, and have plants producing loads of different compounds which are valuable. By doing this, we have taken away a time consuming and energy demanding step in the plant.

So that we focused the plant on producing these molecules to us. In a different way, we used to send letters to people. Now you take the phone and you call you have direct and immediate contact. That's exactly what this is about: to be able to talk directly to the plants and be able to collaborate with them. Why is this possible? It's because we are using the building blocks of nature, we are just combining them in new ways. And that's really the essence of synthetic biology. We talk about the 'share your parts' principle to achieve these things. And the more parts you know, the more different things you can do. Now, when we have such system, how do we want to produce the material? Well, what we want to do is to grow algae or masses of plant cell cultures in these big plastic containers. These containers, simple plastic bags, they let the light shine through to energise all the cells, to make the synthesis happen.

And that means the progeny of Fred and Nana can easily be collected at the bottom of these containers. So, if we think big and we should in this occasion here, we hope that this will really substitute the current production of chemicals which we have from the pyrochemical industry using a lot of oils and lots of energy and causing a lot of pollution. So in the beginning we hope to be able to make valuable compounds like taxol so you don't need to have high yields, so you can still make production which is feasible. Further on we'd like to make bulk chemicals in these containers and substitute that from what you get from the oil industry. So in the future I hope we see a lot of these cathedrals made of glass where sunlight comes through and you have your production units.

So I told you how we can do this. But why does this work? And just let me illustrate this with an example from the electronics industry. So you know, when you buy a fridge or radio or television set or computer and you look at what's inside: there are a lot of parts. And some of these parts are shown here. And these are also the parts we are working with in synthetic biology. It's just biological parts. So you know you can put these togother and the difference between a fridge and a computer is how these components have been assembled. Now, we can use those components and assemble a racing car. A racing car is driven by one person and has the sole purpose of driving as fast as possible. But you can take the same units and combine them in a different way, and make a bus. A bus has room for more persons.

And if these persons have different competences, they start talking together, then actually, lots of thing can happen inside that bus. And maybe that bus reaches that goal we want to reach faster than the racing car. This is what this is about: to combine the efforts of people, combine systems in new ways to achieve things you didn't think about before. So, synthetic biology offers a lot of options for regular citizens to participate. And in parallel with this professional work in synthetic biology, there's a lot of activities going on, a whole movement and we call it the Bio-hacker movement. And things like I mentioned, like growing algae and so on are easy to adapt by private people. So I am quite convinced, in the years to come, you will see remarkable results from scientists collaborating with citizen scientists and crowd resourcing to generate new adventures which we can all benefit from in the aim to reach a more sustainable society. This is a picture of the biohackers and everyone is welcome on this bus and if you look at the web, you will find many places where you can enter.

Thank you very much for listening, and please remember to water your plants. (Applause).