While gene editing technology has improved crop breeding and adaptation, the process of regrowing a plant from edited cells is costly, lengthy, and unpredictable. Many popular crops are difficult to regenerate with existing methods. The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) is providing a $664,000 grant through its Crops of the Future Collaborative to the University of Maryland (UMD) to develop a technology that can both edit a crop’s genes and speed up crop regeneration. Matching funds provide a total $739,000 investment in this work.
"In this grant, we are upgrading the conventional CRISPR genome editing systems to the more powerful CRISPR-Combo systems, which would ease genome editing applications,” says Yiping Qi, lead investigator in the Department of Plant Science & Landscape Architecture at UMD. “The current CRISPR systems can only do either genome editing or gene activation to turn up a gene’s function, but the CRISPR-Combo systems can do both at the same time. CRISPR-Combo represents a powerful tool to facilitate genome editing, and ultimately crop breeding."
“The limitations of current regeneration methods are throttling the development of enhanced nutritional and agronomic traits,” says Jeff Rosichan, director of the Crops of the Future Collaborative. “Breakthroughs in gene editing are constrained if they don’t lead to viable, affordable crops. Applying proven gene editing technology to the problem of crop regeneration bottlenecks will more easily produce crops with enhanced nutrition and agronomic benefits.”
Currently, only a small number of plant species respond well to regeneration techniques that involve cell culturing—growing cells outside the plant in a suitable environment—though the reasons for this are unclear to researchers. Even among crops that regenerate, the process poses risks. Regeneration takes a long time, forcing researchers to predict which crops and traits will be in demand years in advance. Also, there are often multiple undesired and unpredictable changes to genomes that occur during the process.
Qi will lead a team of co-investigators including Kranthi Mandadi of Texas A&M University and Randall Niedz of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop CRISPR-Combo systems that will use CRISPR gene editing technology to kick-start the regeneration process. Researchers are initially focusing on introducing traits that reduce allergen content in carrots, promote herbicide and disease resistance in potatoes, and promote disease resistance in citrus. These crops were chosen in part because they are high-value food crops that face various impediments in breeding new varieties, and CRISPR-Combo could help overcome these hurdles.
"Compared to conventional breeding, genome editing technologies can accelerate crop breeding with high precision, less time and cost,” says Qi. “This project aims to make genome editing in crops more efficient and successful, which will translate into improved crop production and enhanced nutrition in the produce we eat with sustainable inputs. This can help sustain a growing global population."
“We are delighted to join forces with UMD and USDA and develop innovative CRISPR-based technologies to improve vegetable and fruit crops of relevance to Texas and US agriculture,” adds Mandadi.
This grant was awarded as part of the Crops of the Future Collaborative’s Accelerated Crop Breeding program. The program accelerates development of diverse crop species suited to sustainable agriculture and improved human nutrition.
Qi and Mandadi are also previous awardees of FFAR’s New Innovator in Food & Agriculture Research Award, which provides early-career scientists the investment needed to propel them into successful research careers.
Crops of the Future Collaborative
The Crops of the Future Collaborative is a public-private, multi-participant consortium convened by the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research. The Collaborative brings together companies and research organizations to accelerate development of new crop varieties that address food and agriculture challenges. The Collaborative leverages participants’ resources to expand the scientific understanding of characteristics giving rise to complex traits that crops need to adapt to changing environments.