Plant-Genome Hackers Seek Better Ways to Produce Customized Crops

From Scientific American:

The 150 attendees of the Crop Engineering Consortium Workshop were awash with ideas and brimming with molecular gadgets. Thanks to advances in synthetic biology and automation, several projects boasted more than 1,000 engineered genes and other molecular tools, ready to test in a researcher’s crop of choice. But that is where they often hit a wall. Outdated methods for generating plants with customized genomes—a process called transformation—are cumbersome, unreliable and time-consuming.

Asked what hurdles remain for the field, plant developmental biologist Giles Oldroyd of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, had a ready answer: “The big thing would be to improve plant transformation,” he said.

“What we’re all facing is this delivery problem,” says Dan Voytas, a plant biologist at the University of Minnesota in Saint Paul. “We have powerful reagents, but how do you get them into the cells?”

At issue is the decades-old problem that it is difficult to modify plant genomes and then regenerate a whole plant from a few transformed cells. Genome-editing techniques such as CRISPR–Cas9 hold out the promise of sophisticated crop engineering that would once have been unthinkable—making it all the more frustrating when researchers run up against an old roadblock.

On 28 September, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) recognized this frustration by announcing that it would fund research into better transformation methods. That focus is one of four in a new plant-genome research programme that will receive a total of US$15 million.

“Everybody agrees that it really is the bottle­neck for genome engineering,” says Neal Stewart, a plant biologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who co-organized an NSF workshop about plant transformation last November. “And I think there’s enough interest now in trying to come up with ways to fix the problem for major crops.”

Some plants, such as the diminutive thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), the ‘lab rat’ …

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