An idea blossoming: Revolution Bioengineering

26 May 2014

Keira Havens of Revolution Bioengineering

With the SynBio axlr8r programme getting under way, spoke to Keira Havens of Revolution Bioengineering who, with her business partner, wants to turn plants into a multicoloured spectacle.

Following the Synthetic Biology Future event held last March in Cork, a number of companies, scientific research groups and individuals from around the world reached out to take part in the accelerator aimed at bringing the rapidly developing field of synthetic biology to the wider world.

One such pairing was Keira Havens and Nikolai Braun of Revolution Bioengineering, whose research is aimed at developing plants that can be bio-engineered into changing colours depending entirely on what they, or whoever they design the plant for, want.

But also, the pair are attempting to make the field of synthetic biology a much more attractive and, frankly, less fear-inducing science that many of the general public think when it comes to the concept of tinkering with the very fabric of nature and genetic modification.

Fulfilling a dream

Just a matter of hours before the deadline for applications for the SynBio axlr8r, both Havens and Braun were facing the prospect of their colour-changing flower being doomed to literally never see the light of day.

Despite putting forward their research proposals to a number of scientific bodies in the US, the pair were facing the possibility that the prohibitive cost of proof-of-concept reports needed, particularly in plant science, as well as the day-to-day living of working their day jobs, would be just too much for the project to continue.

As any scientist may say, rarely is scientific research a part-time job and with the added competition of well-published laboratories and traditional government grants, the pair were almost ready to call it quits.

Thankfully, for both of them, Hawaii-native Havens stumbled across the SynBio axlr8r website and more so on a whim and for practice, decided to apply for this relatively small accelerator programme based in University College Cork (UCC).

Just two weeks later, Havens and Braun received the news they had been accepted to the accelerator and now faced the challenge of leaving everything in the US behind them and establishing themselves in Ireland, a place where neither of them had been before.

“Being able to devote resources and our full attention is an incredible opportunity on its own and we were about to give up,” says Havens, “but we probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the (SynBio) accelerator.”

The science

So how do you turn a regular green-leaved plant into a unique blue plant with a person’s name genetically coded into its leaves?

As Haven stresses, the science behind actually creating their goal is still very much in development but the basic scientific theses are there to be worked on.

In fact, the concept of a flower changing colours is not as science fiction as it may sound.

In nature, there already exists plants that change colour, depending on their environment. For example, hydrangeas will turn a reddish colour if the soil is particularly acidic, but will also turn bluer if the soil is more basic.

The biology behind this is the result of small molecules known as anthocyanins. Revolution Bioengineering plans to change the environment of these molecules by connecting certain genes to the plant’s internal clock used to benefit from photosynthesis.

This, they hope, will give them a flower that can change colour throughout the day and create unique designs that can see it turn from red to blue and back again.

It is their hope that once they have developed the science, they will be able to remove the stigma attached to what the plant would be, a genetically modified organism (GMO).

With examples in the news of engineered crops causing havoc with ecosystems and supposed negative effects on human health, the term GMO has almost become an acronym to fear in some circles.

For Havens and Braun, however, they believe if they can show the beautiful side of science, their flowers could prove a watershed moment in pushing forward some other significant syn-bio advances that could greatly benefit the world.

“This is a beautiful physical representation of how science can transform our world, and it is also accessible to everybody for their inspection and enjoyment,” says Havens.

“It’s a product that the public can touch and interact with on their own terms, and it is a powerful way to demonstrate what plant molecular technologies can bring to the planet for the benefit of everybody.”

Science vs business

The only question remains as to how to most successfully balance scientific research and endeavour with a sound business strategy.

Traditionally never going hand-in-hand, there has always been the somewhat conflicting ideals of pursuing scientific research for purely scientific benefits and the actual need to make it a viable product, especially when it comes to something like a colour-changing plant aimed at appealing to the public.

“Running a business is very, very different from being a scientist, so different it’s not even funny,” says Havens.

“Having Bill (Bill Liao of SOSventures, which is behind the SynBio axlr8r) to talk to about the process and hear from their perspective in how they made that transition and maintain your scientific credibility without sacrificing a successful business has been great. Business wants to sell anything and science wants to strive for knowledge and pure ideals and they conflict at times. We’re slowly learning that we may have to make sacrifices at times to balance.”

Right now however, they’re still firmly focused on getting the research done to create their colour-changing plant, but in the meantime, they still wish to engage with the Irish public, and those around the world, about the potential for synthetic molecular biology.

“We have been delighted to be able to talk to the public about something that is controversial and frightening. People aren’t too comfortable talking to large companies about it because they feel they’ve vested interests in it and sometimes it’s difficult to have conversations about it. We want to be a part of that conversation.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic