Rapid new automated genomics screening stamps out crop disease

04 March 2021

Researchers at the Earlham Institute (EI) have created a new automated workflow using liquid handling robots to identify the genetic basis to prevent plant pathogens, which can be used on a much larger and rapid scale than current methods.

The new Earlham Biofoundry automated workflow gives scientists an enhanced visual check of genetic mutations linked to the control of crop disease, speeding up analysis to a fraction of the time compared to current methods - from months to weeks - accelerating development of novel products for crop protection in the agricultural industry

Biosynthesis is the formation of chemical compounds by a living organism, or a biosynthetic  process modeled on these reactions in living organisms. 

The Earlham Biofoundry, alongside the Truman Group at the John Innes Centre, used this workflow to experiment on the control of the common potato pathogen, Streptomyces scabies, which causes a devastating disease known as ‘potato scab’, by Pseudomonas sp. (bacteria). 

The team screened 2,880 Pseudomonas sp. (isolated from potato field) mutants with the plant pathogen in just 11 hours, to identify and correlate the pathogen growth inhibition with a biosynthetic gene cluster within two weeks - indicating which genes were preventing the pathogen.  

This approach will pinpoint genes involved in pathogen growth inhibition by bacteria, not the plant themselves; where either a bacterial strain or a molecule produced by a bacterial strain, would end up as the crop protection product. 

The new EI automated workflow will allow scientists to scale-up the process of identifying Pseudomonas gene clusters that are responsible for restricting pathogen growth, avoiding human error and increasing reproducibility and accuracy. The engineering biology workflow can also be applied to similar bacterial genome analyses. 

Biofoundries integrate high-throughput software and hardware platforms with synthetic biology approaches to enable the design, execution and analyses of large-scale experiments. The unique and powerful combination of EI's Biofoundry infrastructure, expertise in molecular biology, and automation programming provide flexible resources for a wide range of workflows and research areas. 

Co-Corresponding author of the study and Earlham Biofoundry Manager Dr Jose A. Carrasco Lopez, said: “We demonstrate the applicability of biofoundries to molecular microbiology by using automated workflows to identify the genetic basis of growth inhibition of the plant pathogen Streptomyces scabies by a Pseudomonas strain isolated from a potato field.

“The Earlham Biofoundry generated workflow resulted in the identification of a gene cluster linked to the inhibitory effect on the potato pathogen which made the process much easier. By identifying the new genetic determinants, it opens the door to finding the metabolites involved in pathogen inhibition.”


Biofoundry Jose 2


The new workflow will help scientists to understand how the genes are involved in the  synthesis of the inhibitory metabolites, look at the species’ inhibitory range and how these genes can be used for biocontrol, and how Pseudomonas is resistant to the very same inhibitory metabolite it’s producing. 

“Manual screenings are usually performed with pin replicators in the same plate, where many mutants are together in the presence of the pathogen,” adds Dr Carrasco Lopez. “This means that a mutant in a non-related gene could mask the lack of inhibitory effect of a real-hit mutant by proximity.”

“We solved this by creating individual assays for each mutant - this impacts the scientific community significantly, and provides enhanced control of crop pathogens based on biological processes which will translate into better crop yields.”     

Although these microbiological methods have been used before, with screening of well-known mutant libraries, this innovative study has for the first time used an automated screening process to reduce the required time and complete the process in weeks; whereas manually, it could take months.       

Collaborator and first author Alaster Moffat, PhD student in the Truman Lab, who approached EI about the possibility of automating the biosynthetic screening, said: “We had previously been unable to identify genes important for inhibiting the growth of the pathogen using bioinformatics approaches, but this workflow allowed us to rapidly probe the effects of almost every accessory gene in the Pseudomonas isolate's genome directly, and find a novel biosynthetic gene cluster within a very short timeframe.”

The Earlham Biofoundry plans to progress the study by creating workflow modifications to adapt to new projects and pathogens. “Once we have identified the gene cluster involved in the synthesis of this new metabolite,” says Dr Carrasco Lopez, “scientists could mutate every single gene to identify functions and essential genes for metabolite synthesis. This can be applied to control plant pathogens and further improve the potato crop’s yield, to test the species’ inhibitory range of these metabolites and to identify new genes from other bacterial species linked to the impairment of other crop pathogens.”

The paper, ‘A biofoundry workflow for the identification of genetic determinants of microbial growth inhibition’ is published in Synthetic Biology.

 Alaster Moffat is a BBSRC funded PhD students on the Norwich Research Park Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (NRPDTP). 


Notes to editors.

Notes to Editor


Find out more about the Earlham Biofoundry here


For more information, please contact: 

Hayley London

Media & Communications Officer, Earlham Institute (EI)

About Earlham Institute

The Earlham Institute (EI) is a world-leading research Institute focusing on the development of genomics and computational biology. EI is based within the Norwich Research Park and is one of eight institutes that receive strategic funding from Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) - £5.43m in 2017/18 - as well as support from other research funders. EI operates a National Capability to promote the application of genomics and bioinformatics to advance bioscience research and innovation.

EI offers a state of the art DNA sequencing facility, unique by its operation of multiple complementary technologies for data generation. The Institute is a UK hub for innovative bioinformatics through research, analysis and interpretation of multiple, complex data sets. It hosts one of the largest computing hardware facilities dedicated to life science research in Europe. It is also actively involved in developing novel platforms to provide access to computational tools and processing capacity for multiple academic and industrial users and promoting applications of computational Bioscience. Additionally, the Institute offers a training programme through courses and workshops, and an outreach programme targeting key stakeholders, and wider public audiences through dialogue and science communication activities.



About John Innes Centre

The John Innes Centre is an independent, international centre of excellence in plant science, genetics and microbiology.

Our mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, to apply our knowledge of nature’s diversity to benefit agriculture, the environment, human health, and wellbeing, and engage with policy makers and the public. We foster a creative, curiosity-driven approach to fundamental questions in bio-science, with a view to translating that into societal benefits. Over the last 100 years, we have achieved a range of fundamental breakthroughs, resulting in major societal impacts.

Our new vision Healthy Plants, Healthy People, Healthy Planet (www.hp3) is a collaborative call to action. Bringing knowledge, skills and innovation together to create a world where we can sustainably feed a growing population, mitigate the effects of climate change and use our understanding of plants and microbes to develop foods and discover compounds to improve public health.

The John Innes Centre is strategically funded by the UKRI-BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), and is supported by the John Innes Foundation through provision of research accommodation, capital funding and long-term support of the Rotation PhD programme.

For more information about the John Innes Centre visit our website www.jic.ac.uk