Researchers adopt approach for more ethical plant research

Professor Elizabete Carmo-Silva holding a 3-D print model of Rubisco activase next to a cowpea plant and the equipment used to image membranes (the green bands in the screen correspond to Rubisco activase)
Professor Elizabete Carmo-Silva holding a 3-D print model of Rubisco activase next to a cowpea plant and the equipment used to image membranes (the green bands in the screen correspond to Rubisco activase)

Lancaster plant scientists have adopted a cutting-edge technique to ensure their research meets the highest ethical standards.

Elizabete Carmo-Silva, Professor of crop physiology at Lancaster University, has spent decades working to improve the efficiency of Rubisco Activase, a key protein in plant’s photosynthetic process. Her research aims to ensure key food crops remain resilient in a rapidly warming planet, helping to bolster food security around the world.

Professor Carmo-Silva has stayed up to date on innovative and evolving plant science research methods, but one aspect of her work always concerned her – the process of making antibodies to detect and quantify proteins in a plant. This is frequently done in plant sciences, for example to characterise the abundance of photosynthetic proteins in crop plants. Traditionally the process of making antibodies for research involved the use of a small number of animals – typically rabbits – which would have to be killed in order for their blood products to be used.

“The ethics of our research are very important, we’ve used antibodies made in the traditional way by external suppliers in the past but were always feeling very uneasy about using animals to do so,” said Professor Carmo-Silva. “A doctoral researcher on my research team, Dr Duncan Bloemers, suggested we use a novel recombinant system to produce our new antibodies, which bypasses the need for animals, so I said great! Let’s do that.”

In recent years, advances in technology using cell cultures have begun to enable recombinant antibody production. Recombinant antibodies are proteins containing segments of DNA from different organisms and produced by a cell culture – removing the need to use animals. Professor Carmo-Silva first heard about the technology from The UK National Centre for the Replacement Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs).

Using the method adopted by Dr Bloemers and Professor Carmo-Silva, scientists can generate antibodies for their target proteins and make progress towards engineering more efficient photosynthesis without sacrificing any animals.

“This technology has existed for years, but is has not been used much in plant research either because scientists don’t know that it’s an option or because it’s cost-prohibitive,” said Dr Bloemers, data analyst for LiNaEnergy and former doctoral researcher in the Carmo-Silva lab. “We were looking to make various antibodies to detect four different cowpea isoforms, which, using the traditional method, would require animals. We adopted this technology to make our research more ethical, even at the higher cost.”

And now a new chapter by Dr Bloemers and Professor Carmo-Silva outlines how researchers can apply this method to plant science work. The chapter appears in Photosynthesis: Methods and Protocols, a new book sharing methods, protocols, and best practices with the photosynthesis research community.

This will be the third edition that Professor Carmo-Silva has contributed to, and she is excited to share the production of antibodies for photosynthetic proteins using recombinant technology with others. The chapter includes how Dr Bloemers and Professor Carmo-Silva went about designing and developing the antibodies specific to the different isoforms of their protein of interest (Rubisco Activase), what was involved in the design, and how to validate that the proteins are being properly recognised by the antibodies.

“We are very thankful to those who have made it possible to use this more ethical strategy moving forward,” said Professor Carmo-Silva. “Now that we have adopted it and use it in our lab, we hope others will use it as well.”

Professor Carmo-Silva conducts Rubisco research as part of Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), an international research project that aims to increase global food production by developing food crops that turn the sun’s energy into food more efficiently.

The adoption of the new approach is in keeping with the UK’s commitment to Replace, Refine and Reduce (the NC3Rs), to which Lancaster University is also committed.

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