Orthogonal control of gene expression in plants using synthetic promoters and CRISPR-based transcription factors

Shaunak Kar, Yogendra Bordiya, Nestor Rodriguez, Junghyun Kim, Elizabeth C. Gardner, Jimmy D. Gollihar, Sibum Sung, Andrew D. Ellington

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Background: The construction and application of synthetic genetic circuits is frequently improved if gene expression can be orthogonally controlled, relative to the host. In plants, orthogonality can be achieved via the use of CRISPR-based transcription factors that are programmed to act on natural or synthetic promoters. The construction of complex gene circuits can require multiple, orthogonal regulatory interactions, and this in turn requires that the full programmability of CRISPR elements be adapted to non-natural and non-standard promoters that have few constraints on their design. Therefore, we have developed synthetic promoter elements in which regions upstream of the minimal 35S CaMV promoter are designed from scratch to interact via programmed gRNAs with dCas9 fusions that allow activation of gene expression. Results: A panel of three, mutually orthogonal promoters that can be acted on by artificial gRNAs bound by CRISPR regulators were designed. Guide RNA expression targeting these promoters was in turn controlled by either Pol III (U6) or ethylene-inducible Pol II promoters, implementing for the first time a fully artificial Orthogonal Control System (OCS). Following demonstration of the complete orthogonality of the designs, the OCS was tied to cellular metabolism by putting gRNA expression under the control of an endogenous plant signaling molecule, ethylene. The ability to form complex circuitry was demonstrated via the ethylene-driven, ratiometric expression of fluorescent proteins in single plants. Conclusions: The design of synthetic promoters is highly generalizable to large tracts of sequence space, allowing Orthogonal Control Systems of increasing complexity to potentially be generated at will. The ability to tie in several different basal features of plant molecular biology (Pol II and Pol III promoters, ethylene regulation) to the OCS demonstrates multiple opportunities for engineering at the system level. Moreover, given the fungibility of the core 35S CaMV promoter elements, the derived synthetic promoters can potentially be utilized across a variety of plant species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number42
Pages (from-to)42
JournalPlant Methods
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 29 2022


  • Modular cloning
  • Orthogonal promoter
  • Plant synthetic biology
  • Synthetic transcription factor

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Genetics
  • Plant Science


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