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This question deals with the magic explained in this question. It is also explained below.

In my fantasy novel, magic is a natural part of the world. It is not some mystical force shrouded in mystery, but rather backed by science (though only I, the author, know all of it's workings).

In my world, magic is a force that by its nature changes living cells. It is similar to radiation, but different in the respect that it changes what the cell does, usually in a beneficial way. For example, if the cells of an eye were exposed to magic, the magic might make the eye also see infrared light.

There are those in my world who can control the change worked by the magic. (They can force the magic to make the eye see infrared light. They can also use magic to make that same eye go blind.)

Question:

Using this magic, I'm wondering if it is possible to accelerate the growth of a plant. Can the cells of a plant (a tree for instance) be altered in such a way that a seedling could reach maturity in a matter of weeks? Days? Hours? Minutes even?

Remember that 'changing the cells' doesn't mean they now magically do what I want. The cells can only be altered, so that they produce different chemicals or perhaps react differently. The cells cannot be controlled or anything.

Note: Assume that the plant has access to unlimited amounts of energy as a byproduct of the magic.

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To alter an organisms growth pattern you simply need to change it's DNA patterns. The patterns of DNA stored in every cell in your body instructs each and every cell in your body on how it should function throughout it's life. See here (Wikipedia) and here (US National Library of Medicine).

If you want a plant to grow faster you simply rearrange the DNA patterns in all or most of it's cells so that it is instructed it to do so. The only limiting factor to that, is that the plant needs the resources required to do so such as oxygen, water, etc. Bamboo the fastest growing plant in the world can grow at 91 cm b(35 in) per day. See here (guinnessworldrecords.com).

Now if you wanted to make an "eye see infrared light" you must also rearrange some nerve cells in the brain so that it can perceive said light through that eye and also not cause some sort of neurological problem.

Basically to get the effect you want you must simply change the fundamental pieces of an organism which usually would only require altering the DNA of a large portion of the cells in the area of the organism you would like to change. Altering a cells DNA with radiation is possible, but how exactly you would go about doing that so precisely is far beyond me. And you must also know exactly how to construct the extremely intricate patterns of DNA for your "magic" to work.

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    $\begingroup$ How fast are we talking about here? Is there some limit to how fast something could grow, assuming you have full access to its DNA and are capable of rearranging it as desired? $\endgroup$ – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Oct 4 '16 at 5:58
  • $\begingroup$ I honestly have no idea what the maximum speed an organism is able to grow is. But the limiting factors are gravity, nutrients, and cellular structure. Also usually the faster something grows the weaker it is because it has less time to "set" and build solid structure. And it can grow exponentially larger as it gets bigger because it has more cells to replicate with. $\endgroup$ – X_Wera Oct 4 '16 at 6:12
  • $\begingroup$ A blue whale calf can grow 200lbs (90.7185 kg) in 24 hours based off that I bet you could probably grow a human arm within about six hours if you were in complete control of the DNA. Or a meter long stick of bamboo in 30 minutes, but there is no real scientific backing (because it's never really been done before) and the side effects would be rather unpredictable. $\endgroup$ – X_Wera Oct 4 '16 at 6:46
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Asked a similar question recently (more geared for Sci-Fi) on reddit and got an interesting answer from a biomedical engineer.

In answer to my initial question, about growing plants into specific shapes: You'd essentially need to invent new biology and put it into a plant to get it to grow into really specific shapes. CRISPR changes genetic material, so its ability to definitely produce a single 'outcome' or 'phenotype' depends on how heavily that outcome depends on genetics, instead of environmental factors. Plant shape on a macro scale is heavily dominated by environmental variables.

With regard to incorporating or using different sorts of molecules, this would be much more doable, though it'd still depend on the specifics. It would be moderately difficult, but within the realm of current science, to engineer a plant that can produce a protein that can sequester metal ions, for example. You'd need to additionally engineer some other components of the plant, making sure that the root system is permeable to the metal ion, that the protein is produced in relevant parts of the plant and cell, etc.

When I asked specifically about fast-growing plants: I'm going to go with no, I don't think it is possible. Or, if it is possible, it'd require something more fundamental than gene editing. The time scale you're describing butts up against the speed at which cells can generate the material required to divide into daughter cells and grow to a similar size as the original cell.

Most of the constraints that you'd have to 'engineer' around are things like diffusion, so I don't really see how gene editing would help much. Pretty fast growing bacteria can divide in 20-40 minutes -- you'd need many rounds of division to go from a seed to a tree, and clearly that involves more complex cell types (and eukaryotes generally take longer to divide, yeast take maybe 1.5 hours). None of that accounts for the differentiation that would need to occur, etc.

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For a plant to grow it needs energy, as any living creature requires, so that is can create new cells, repair old ones, respirate, grow and do all the strenuous plant tasks it needs to do (like, um... yeah).

The majority of plants get their energy through a process called photosynthesis, wherein by harnessing the energy of sunlight, they are able to convert water and carbon-dioxide into usable sugars.

The problem is, photosynthesis isn't very effective, which means that for the amount of energy you are exposing the plant to, very little is being converted into usable sugars (on average anywhere from 1 - 6% depending on the species). This is due to the size and structure of chlorophyl (generally found in the chloroplasts of leaves or the green parts of the plant).

So what to do:

Using this "magic" you could theoretical alter the size, shape and concentration of chlorophyl molecules within the leaves of a sapling (or indeed just increase the size of the leaves too), allowing it to absorb more sunlight to convert into sugars, giving it a bigger "fuel" reserve, of which it can use to grow quicker. Though giving the tree these newly shaped chlorophyl will aid in the conversion of energy, it will need access to larger amounts of water and carbon-dioxide.

Since trees use xylem (tubule-like tissue) in their trunks and roots to carry water up into their leaves (through a process called capillary-action) the "magic" will need to be used to increase their size also, allowing for greater water-carrying capacity, hence giving it this greater photosynthetic yield.

So is it possible: Yes indeed it is possible to speed the process of growth by providing the sapling with more "fuel"; but remember that the process of growing, in any creature, takes time. No matter how much energy you provide something with, it will still require time to repurpose it, to create new cells and build itself up, and even though, with the help of this magic, this growth process is sped up, it will not be instant and take more than just a few minutes - in ideal circumstances (continuous sun/access to water/100% photosynthetic yield)- more like a few days.

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  • $\begingroup$ I did forget to mention that my magic is energy based. If this spell were being cast, the plant would have access to unlimited amounts of energy. Not so much minerals and the like, so I don't know if that's a problem. But if I can just restructure it to grow fully within a few days, that's all I need! $\endgroup$ – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Oct 4 '16 at 5:55
  • $\begingroup$ @ThomasMyron, indeed with infinite energy uptake there should be no trouble growing this plant within a few days. Glad to have helped a little. $\endgroup$ – Harry David Oct 4 '16 at 6:01

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