Efficiently Introducing New Traits with Genetic Engineering

Thomas “Tom” Brutnell is an industry leader in the field of agricultural biotechnology and the president of Viridis Genomics Consulting. His professional focus centers around genome (genetic) engineering, a discipline that began in the early 1980s when a research team led by Bob Fraley successfully utilized Agrobacterium tumefaciens to manipulate plant cells with the help of recombinant DNA. This led to the development of an array of genetically engineered crops, including corn and soybeans.

Genome engineering is different from traditional plant genetics, as it involves extracting DNA from one organism and introducing it into another, resulting in an organism which has specific desired traits. In order for this process to be successful, genes must first be located, cloned and characterized in order to determine their expression, and then transformed into a crop plant’s cells. Brutnell is well-versed in this cutting-edge technology and continues to provide innovative solutions for crop improvement.

Epigenetic Regulation as a Driver of Adaptive Plant Growth

A Missouri leader in the agricultural biotech sphere, Thomas Tom Brutnell consults and serves as vice president at Gateway Biotechnology, Inc. For his thesis research at Yale University, Thomas Brutnell undertook a molecular genetic analysis of transposable elements in plants and focused on the epigenetic regulation of the transposable maize Activator/Dissociation (Ac/Ds) elements.

Not limited to plants, epigenetic regulation of genes is a process where their activity is controlled by the structure of chromatin (a material made up of protein, RNA, and DNA). However, epigenetic regulation in plants differs in important ways from animals. With mammals, most tissue and organ formation occurs during embryonic development. By contrast, plants continuously generate new organs from meristems (self-sustaining stem cell populations), enabling growth. This exposes the plant germline to many more challenges over time that a typical mammalian system. For instance, the meristems of a 200 year old tree are experiencing CO2 concentrations today that are nearly double the levels when it germinated and the associated extreme environmental variation associated with climate change!

Plants cannot leave their environments and must cope with variable and unfavorable conditions. Epigenetic regulatory mechanisms enable metastable alterations in gene activity and influence gene expression patterns, allowing plants to survive and reproduce in diverse environments. Polyploidization is one key aspect that contributes to epigenetic regulation. It expands the plant’s sets of chromosomes, strengthening gene families and enabling functional specializations among duplicated genes.

The Differences between Hiking and Trekking

A Yale University PhD graduate, Dr. Thomas “Tom” Brutnell is a scientist with over 25 years of experience in plant molecular biology, genetics, and genomics. He currently serves as a vice president at Gateway Biotechnology, a drug development company in St. Louis, Missouri. He also serves as a visiting scientist at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing, China. In his free time, Thomas Brutnell is an avid walker and occasional runner.

Given the extensive amount of time many of us now spend behind a computer screen, it is important to incorporate some daily standing, stretching and walking breaks into the daily work schedule. This is particularly relevant to those of us who now work from home and spend even less time walking to and from our cars into the office in the morning or routinely skip heading out to lunch for a break. Incorporating a short 10 to 15 min walk between a morning and afternoon meeting is a great way to rest your eyes, wrists and fingers from the screen and keyboard. It is also important to be intentional in standing at least every hour. Just one or two minutes of standing and walking around the living room every hour can actually benefit your metabolism and provided a break for your eyes.

In addition to taking short breaks during the day, incorporating 20 min or more of strenuous exercise two or three times a week is not only good for the body but good for the mind. A 20 min run through the woods or even on a treadmill will do more to help relieve stress if you don’t think about work and instead focus on your breathing, your posture or on the rhythm of your pace. The time spent on these activities will more than make up in productivity (and longevity!) for time lost behind the screen.

Charting the Future of Synthetic Biology

Accomplished plant biotechnology professional Thomas Brutnell serves as the vice president of Gateway Biotechnology, where he oversees the transition from drug discovery to product development. He also founded Viridis Genomics Consulting to help bridge the divide between academic and industry science. As a geneticist and molecular engineer Thomas Brutnell has a broad range of interests that includes C4 photosynthesis, breeding, plant tissue culture, and synthetic biology.

The 20-year-old field of synthetic biology promises a future of exciting advances. Potential future advances in synthetic biology include fire-resistant lumber produced from genetically engineered trees, modified organs that are less likely to be rejected, and synthetic microbes that are capable of detecting an impending attack by disease organisms.

On June 19, 2019, the Engineering Biology Research Consortium, an initiative funded in part by the National Science Foundation, created a roadmap towards the future of synthetic biology. The Consortium agreed that synthetic biology is mature enough to offer solutions to a wide range of societal challenges.

More than 80 engineers and scientists from diverse disciplines and different universities and companies collaborated to provide a strong case to demonstrate the need for the federal government to invest in synthetic biology. With all the avenues that are open for biotechnological development, America should be at the forefront of these developments. The Consortium believes that now is the time to make synthetic biology a federal priority.

The roadmap serves as a guide for where synthetic biology should aim over the next two decades. It will also guide government investments, particularly those that relate to the spectrum of the Department of National Defense, Department of Energy, and National Institutes of Health.