I'm wondering if a plant can be programmed (by modifying its genes) to grow into any shape that it's programming instructs.

I understand that a plants genes are its instructions of how to convert the nutrients in the soil into the plant we see. So, instead of producing an apple tree or a giant sequoia, couldn't a plant be programmed to shape itself into a house, desk, or even at a stretch of the imagination, a bioship?

I'm looking for any links, or explanations of why this could/couldn't be done by anyone with more experience than I that could guide my research.

I am hoping that a plant behaves just like any other system. That it has inputs (nutrients, sunlight etc.) a function that describes it (its genes) and an output, the plant that grows. With this in mind, I suppose it would only be a matter of modifying the genes to produce the desired output (with the constraint being the available input).

Thank you, Paul


It could not fit in a comment...

1) Any material have some physical limitations and living tissue are not exceptions. A plant cannot resist to very high pressure without changing shape for example. Outside of these problems of material sciences I think the major considerations are technical…

2) It is possible to influence the shape of a plant by changing its DNA code, changing its physical and chemical environment (micro or macro environment) or by injecting some substance. Today we might be able to influence the number of branching of certain plants species for example. But we are terribly far from having enough knowledge in biology (in genotype-phenotype map, in biochemical pathway) in order to transform a dandelion into a shopping mall! Even we had already described all chemical pathway linking genes to phenotypic traits, it is immensely more complex to think of which kind of DNA sequence might transform a plant into something that is so different.

I don't know if anyone has ever created a totally synthetic (and not copied from already existing sequences) DNA sequence and could predict the impact it would have on the organism phenotype. Some people were able to create a totally artificial self replicating RNA though.

Note: Some people play with the properties of the DNA molecule in order to create various tissues. This might interest you as well.

One can highly improve this answer by giving some results of studies on synthetic life.

  • $\begingroup$ From your comments I understand that theoretically it seems possible to do this sort of thing (apart from the physical strength etc. of a material that a plant can produce from the given resources) but that current understanding is not up to the task. The translation from code to results (genotype to phenotype mapping) is what most interests me and I will look it up. Thanks for the ideas. And if anyone has anything else to add I would love to hear it. $\endgroup$
    – paulvs
    Nov 12 '13 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ For instance, there is Mycoplasma laboratorium $\endgroup$
    – nico
    Nov 12 '13 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Paul I guess the most interesting things you may find are not with the keywords "genotype-phenotype mapping" but rather with "synthetic biology" and "bioengineering". I should have used these words above! $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Nov 12 '13 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks Remi, I looked up these topics and found many interesting articles, even one about a line detection algorithm using bacteria that respond to light. Anyway, probably the main use I can see for synthetic biology is for recycling, imagine when you want to refurbish your house, instead of knocking down the unwanted part, carting away the debris and building a new section, we could reprogram the genes of the house so that a new section forms out of the existing materials. I think it even though it sounds far-fetched, it's a realistic dream. $\endgroup$
    – paulvs
    Nov 26 '13 at 15:52

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