“Molecular Scissors” for Food Security
$1.1M NSF Grant Supports Work to Improve Gene Editing Technology for Crops
Just as you can edit the text of an article or the images in a slide presentation, it’s becoming possible for scientists to edit the genomes of food crops—altering wheat so it can better withstand heat, or rice so it’s more resistant to disease, or oats to be more bountiful.
The system for this is called CRISPR, and now Yiping Qi, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, is working to perfect the technology with help from a $1.1 million Plant Genome Research Program Early Career Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
“CRISPR can be thought of as molecular scissors that cuts DNA so that the piece related to a certain trait can be removed, replaced or edited,” he said. “Genome editing is about to revolutionize biological research, medicine and agriculture.”
Using the rice genome as a test platform, he’s been working to improve the specificity of the genetic “cuts” to DNA that allow specific genes to be removed or added, protecting the integrity of the entire genome.
Researchers in more than 36 countries are using the tools developed Qi’s lab, with the goal of advancing plant and crop yields and helping to feed a rapidly growing global population. They have the ability to turn genes “up and down”—regulating the intensity of how they express themselves—as opposed to just entirely “on and off,” Qi said.
“We don’t just test different kinds of these scissors in our lab, but we also have to think about how the DNA goes back together, what else is altered, and whether we are turning a gene on, off, up or down,” he said.
In 2015, an upgrade Qi developed to CRISPR was named a “Breakthrough of the Year” in Science magazine when he swapped one gene editing protein in the system for another and demonstrated vastly increased gene-editing frequencies (an indicator of effectiveness) compared to previous work by other groups.
The core concept of gene editing is not a new one, and has been accomplished with crossbreeding since humans first cultivated crops. But with the Earth’s population projected to hit nearly 10 billion by 2050, food security is an increasing concern. CRISPR could help scientists and agricultural professionals accomplish what might take a decade in traditional crossbreeding in a year or two. That could allow for quicker responses to changing climate, droughts and crop-damaging infestations.
Qi’s research findings will be available to scientists around the world through the public repository Addgene.
“If we want our science to help people and solve these issues, we need to make tools accessible to everyone and collaborate as much as possible,” he said.