Goal Is to Help Scientists Improve Commodities One Cell at a Time

UTIA Center for Agricultural Synthetic Biology graphic

The University of Tennessee Center for Agricultural Synthetic Biology, or CASB, will perform research, such as automated production of single cells from crop plants and cultures, gene editing and rapid synthetic biology design-build-test cycles to make better crop plants, farm animals and food microbes for health and sustainability goals. Illustration provided by N. Stewart, courtesy UTIA.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – In an effort to establish the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture at the forefront of advances in biology designed to improve agricultural production for the benefit of sustainability, increase product diversity and human health, UTIA announces the formation of the Center for Agricultural Synthetic Biology, or CASB.

As described by Neal Stewart, CASB co-director and a professor of plant sciences in the UT Herbert College of Agriculture who also holds the endowed Racheff Chair of Excellence in Plant Molecular Genetics, synthetic biology uses computational techniques to help scientists identify genes that result in beneficial traits. These characteristics then can be triggered so that plant and animal production is improved. Earlier this year the USDA affirmed confidence in gene editing synthetic biology by announcing that new plant varieties that are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods will not be regulated as GMOs.​

The CASB will use agricultural synthetic biology to make better crop plants, farm animals and food microbes for health and sustainability goals. Stewart believes this is the first synthetic biology center in the world aimed specifically at improved agriculture.

“CASB seeks to put Tennessee at the forefront of the intersection of agriculture and sustainability,” adds co-director Scott Lenaghan, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science who also holds an adjunct position in the Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering (MABE) Department. Lenaghan operates an already established nationally recognized lab focused on the development and use of synthetic biology for global food security. His research and expertise cover a wide-range of disciplines, with a primary focus on engineering biological systems, biomaterials and devices that utilize cutting-edge synthetic biology tools and approaches. He hopes his work and the CASB will allow for collaborations that will expand the current definition of synthetic biology beyond molecular biology tools, translating advances into synthetic/engineered constructs, such as micro/nanorobots, diagnostic devices and smart materials.

Stewart adds that “We are interested in eventual field testing and commercialization, but the emphasis of CASB is controlled laboratory testing. We will make sure that all we do is 100 percent safe.” Stewart has more than 20 years’ experience working in the field of genomics and in regulated field trials in crop biotechnology. He says the key to successful synthetic biology is for scientists to follow all the rules, and then be even more careful about considering outcomes. “We have to innovate safely or we don’t innovate at all,” Stewart notes. 

As a service center for the scientific community at the University and beyond, the CASB will perform mechanical tasks for research teams such as automated production of single cells from crop plants and cultures, gene editing, rapid design-build-test cycles and direct writing of DNA into single cells. Most importantly, the CASB is capable of engineering and analysis of biological materials in a contained platform.

The CASB is already equipped with a plant genome editing robot that has been used for automated screening and transformation of plant cells with synthetic DNA.

In short, the CASB is capable of designing plants with improved traits valued by farmers and society – such as drought-resistant grasses and crops or fruits that retain their healthful qualities over long storage periods. After plant design, the CASB will be able to produce and test the new commodity in a relatively rapid pace. Plans are to expand into animal-based biology as well.

Stewart says, “The level of interest within UT and in the agricultural research community, including companies, has been tremendous. People are impressed with UTIA’s foresight and our capabilities to perform translational genetics research, even at this early stage. People seem eager to collaborate with CASB to change the future of agriculture.” 
More information about the CASB can be found online at agsynbiocenter.org​.

A joint effort of the Departments of Plant Sciences and Food Science, the CASB is also funded through UT AgResearch.

The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture celebrates 50 years of excellence in providing Real. Life. Solutions. through teaching, discovery and service. ag.tennessee.edu.



Patricia McDaniels, UTIA Marketing and Communications, 615-835-4570, pmcdaniels@tennesse.edu