“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more things stay the same), is an old French expression that came to mind when I stumbled across two stories about genetic manipulation of food-producing plants.
The first story involves CRISPR (clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats) gene editing and the second involves more ancient ways to manipulate plant genetics.
Getting ‘CRISPR’d’ plant cells to grow into plants
An October 13, 2020 news item on phys.org announces research about getting better results after a plant’s genome has been altered,
Researchers know how to make precise genetic changes within the genomes of crops, but the transformed cells often refuse to grow into plants. One team has devised a new solution.
Scientists who want to improve crops face a dilemma: it can be difficult to grow plants from cells after you’ve tweaked their genomes.
A new tool helps ease this process by coaxing the transformed cells, including those modified with the gene-editing system CRISPR-Cas9, to regenerate new plants. Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Specialist Juan M. Debernardi and Investigator Jorge Dubcovsky, together with David Tricoli at the University of California, Davis [UC Davis] Plant Transformation Facility, Javier Palatnik from Argentina, and colleagues at the John Innes Center [UK], collaborated on the work. The team reports the technology, developed in wheat and tested in other crops, October 12, 2020, in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
An October 12, 2020 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,
“The problem is that transforming a plant is still an art [emphasis mine],” Dubcovsky says. The success rate is often low – depending on the crop being modified, 100 attempts may yield only a handful of green shoots that can turn into full-grown plants. The rest fail to produce new plants and die. Now, however, “we have reduced this barrier,” says Dubcovsky, a plant geneticist at UC Davis. Using two genes that already control development in many plants, his team dramatically increased the formation of shoots in modified wheat, rice, citrus, and other crops.
Although UC Davis has a pending patent for commercial applications, Dubcovsky says the technique is available to any researcher who wants to use it for research, at no charge. A number of plant breeding companies have also expressed interested in licensing it. “Now people are trying it in multiple crops,” he says.
Humans have worked to improve plants since the dawn of agriculture, selecting wild grasses to produce cultivated maize and wheat, for example. Nowadays, though, CRISPR has given researchers the ability to make changes to the genome with surgical precision. They have used it to create wheat plants with larger grains, generate resistance to fungal infection, design novel tomato plant architectures, and engineer other traits in new plant varieties.
But the process isn’t easy. Scientists start out with plant cells or pieces of tissue, into which they introduce the CRISPR machinery and a small guide to the specific genes they’d like to edit. They must then entice the modified cells into forming a young plant. Most don’t sprout – a problem scientists are still working to understand.
They have tried to find work-arounds, including boosting the expression of certain genes that control early stages of plant development. While this approach has had some success, it can lead to twisted, stunted, sterile plants if not managed properly.Dubcovsky and his colleagues looked at two other growth-promoting genes, GRF and GIF, that work together in young tissues or organs of plants ranging from moss to fruit trees. The team put these genes side-by-side, like a couple holding hands, before adding them to plant cells. “If you go to a dance, you need to find your partner,” Dubcovsky says. “Here, you are tied with a rope to your partner.”
Dubcovsky’s team found that genetically altered wheat, rice, hybrid orange, and other crops produced many more shoots if those experiments included the linked GRF and GIF genes. In experiments with one variety of wheat, the appearance of shoots increased nearly eight-fold. The number of shoots in rice and the hybrid orange, meanwhile, more than doubled and quadrupled, respectively. What’s more, these shoots grew into healthy plants capable of reproducing on their own, with none of the defects that can result when scientists boost other development-controlling genes. That’s because one of the genes is naturally degraded in adult tissues, Dubcovsky says.
Caroline Roper, a plant pathologist at University of California, Riverside who was not involved in the work, plans to use the new technology to study citrus greening, a bacterial disease that kills trees and renders oranges hard and bitter.
To understand how citrus trees can protect themselves, she needs to see how removing certain genes alters their susceptibility to the bacterium — information that could lead to ways to fight the disease. With conventional techniques, it could take at least two years to generate the gene-edited plants she needs. She hopes Dubcovsky’s tool will shorten that timeline.
“Time is of the essence. The growers, they wanted an answer yesterday, because they’re at the brink of having to abandon cultivating citrus,” she says.
For anyone who noticed the reference to citrus greening in the last paragraphs of this news release, I have more information aboutthe disease and efforts to it in an August 6, 2020 posting.
As for the latest in gene editing and regeneration, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
A GRF–GIF chimeric protein improves the regeneration efficiency of transgenic plants by Juan M. Debernardi, David M. Tricoli, Maria F. Ercoli, Sadiye Hayta, Pamela Ronald, Javier F. Palatnik & Jorge Dubcovsky. Nature Biotechnology volume 38, pages 1274–1279(2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41587-020-0703-0 First Published Online: 12 October 2020 Journal Issue Date: November 2020
This paper is behind a paywall.
Ancient farming techniques for engineering crops
I stumbled on this story by Gabriela Serrato Marks for Massive Science almost three years late (it’s a Dec. 5, 2017 article),
There are more than 50 strains of maize, called landraces, grown in Mexico. A landrace is similar to a dog breed: Corgis and Huskies are both dogs, but they were bred to have different traits. Maize domestication worked the same way.
Some landraces of maize can grow in really dry conditions; others grow best in wetter soils. Early maize farmers selectively bred maize landraces that were well-adapted to the conditions on their land, a practice that still continues today in rural areas of Mexico.
If you think this sounds like an early version of genetic engineering, you’d be correct. But nowadays, modern agriculture is moving away from locally adapted strains and traditional farming techniques and toward active gene manipulation. The goal of both traditional landrace development and modern genetic modification has been to create productive, valuable crops, so these two techniques are not necessarily at odds.
But as more farmers converge on similar strains of (potentially genetically modified) seeds instead of developing locally adapted landraces, there are two potential risks: one is losing the cultural legacy of traditional agricultural techniques that have been passed on in families for centuries or even millennia, and another is decreasing crop resilience even as climate variability is increasing.
Mexico is the main importer of US-grown corn, but that imported corn is primarily used to feed livestock. The corn that people eat or use to make tortillas is grown almost entirely in Mexico, which is where landraces come in.
It is a common practice to grow multiple landraces with different traits as an insurance policy against poor growth conditions. The wide range of landraces contains a huge amount of genetic diversity, making it less likely that one adverse event, such as a drought or pest infestation, will wipe out an entire crop. If farmers only grow one type of corn, the whole crop is vulnerable to the same event.
Landraces are also different from most commercially available hybrid strains of corn because they are open pollinating, which means that farmers can save seeds and replant them the next year, saving money and preserving the strain. If a landrace is not grown anymore, its contribution to maize’s genetic diversity is permanently lost.
This diversity was cultivated over generations from maize’s wild cousin, teosinte, by 60 groups of indigenous people in Mexico. Teosinte looks like a skinny, hairier version of maize. It still grows wild in some parts of Central America, but its close relatives have been found, domesticated, at archaeological sites in the region over 9,000 years old. These early maize cobs could easily fit in the palm of your hand – not big enough to be a staple crop that early farmers could depend upon for sustenance. Genetically, they were more similar to wild teosinte than to modern maize.
 archaeologists also found that the cobs in Honduras, which is outside the natural range of teosinte, were larger than cobs of the same age from the original domestication region in southern Mexico. The scientists think that people in Honduras were able to develop more productive maize landraces because their crops were isolated from wild teosinte.
The size and shape of the ancient cobs from Honduras show that early farmers engineered the maize crop [emphasis mine] to make it more productive. They developed unique landraces that were well adapted to local conditions and successfully cultivated enough maize to support their communities. In many ways, they were early geneticists. [emphasis mine] …
We have a lot to learn from the indigenous farmers who were growing maize 4,000 years ago. Their history provides examples of both environmentally sound genetic modification and effective adaptation to climate variability. [emphases mine] …
Plus ça change …, eh?