Molecular farming: the next destination for agricultural biotechnology

International Agronomy Day | Hindawi Blog

To mark #InternationalAgronomyDay on the 28th August 2017, Academic Editor Professor İskender Tİryakİ discusses genetic modification of plants, and how genome editing is changing the direction and purpose of cropfarming. He is a Professor at the Department of Agricultural Biotechnology, Canakkale Onsekiz Mart University, Turkey, and has a background in plant breeding, genetics, and biotechnology. His research focuses on practical and fundamental aspects of plant biology and agriculture related to plant breeding and seed-science technologies. 

Agricultural biotechnology has provided novel tools for today’s plant breeders to fine tune the genome structure of plants of interest. One of the major beneficial outcomes of this technology is genetically modified (GM, transgenic) crops, in which one or several genes have been inserted into the plant genome from various sources through different means, such as Agrobacterium tumefaciens or particle bombardment.

The genome of any plant is not constant and is always modified due to either adaptation to the environment or cross-pollination inter- and intraspecies. Plant breeders have also developed crops that previously didn’t exist, such as Triticale. Such plants are also not an issue for individuals who are against GM plants. Although GM plants are associated with a number of controversial issues, the global market for GM plants has grown over last two decades and reached 181.5 billion USD.

Agricultural biotechnology is certainly one of the most adaptive technologies used in plant production. Furthermore, the traditional use of transgenic plants has recently expanded beyond food and feed production as new generations of GM plants host novel applications, such as pharmaceutical manufacturing on an agricultural scale.

The traits of GM plants have mainly been classified into three groups: first-generation GM crops, involved in improvements of agronomic traits such as resistance to pests, herbicides, or diseases; second-generation GM crops, focused on biofortification of food or feed products such as golden rice or bioremediation; and third-generation GM plants, which are designed to produce special substances such as plant-based pharmaceuticals or chemicals used for industrial purposes.

Different terms define the use of GM plants for the production of third-generation GM plants. The term ‘pharming’ refers to the use of plants for the production of pharmaceuticals, although it often indicates the use of animals for the production of drugs. Therefore, the production of recombinant pharmaceutical proteins by using GM plants is specifically defined as plant molecular farming, or molecular pharming, and their products are defined as plant-made pharmaceuticals (or therapeutics; PMP).

On the other hand, biomanufacturing or biopharmaceuticals also appear in the literature refering to the use of biological organisms to manufacture products of interest or pharmaceuticals from biological organisms, respectively. In addition, the term molecular farming is also used for the commercial non-pharmaceutical products of GM plants, such as antibodies, enzymes, and growth factors that are used as research-grade or diagnostic reagents, cosmetic ingredients, biosensors, and biocatalysts to facilitate bioremediation. Although most of these are currently produced on a small-to-medium scale, making it possible to rely on contained growing facilities rather than field cultivation. The full potential of molecular farming will only be realized if large-scale production can be achieved.

Host plant species of molecular farming technology, e.g., self-fertilizing non-crop plants, will be important for future biotechnological aplications. Omics and precise genome-editing technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9 will speed up genome modification, not only for plant-based manufacturing but also for crops that we consume every day.

It’s likely that controversial issues around GM plants will evolve as we consider future molecular farming. Discussion should focus on alternative means or tools we can use to develop better crops for today’s demands, with appropriate caution. Such discussion will not only provide new opportunities for GM crops used to manufacture pharmaceuticals, but it also provides us with an opportunity to remove any potential risks.

Opinions in this blog post are that of the author, and not necessarily that of Hindawi. Profile photo credit:İskender Tİryakİ. The text in this blog post is byİskender Tİryakİ and is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). Illustration by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.