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Researchers’ New Tool Boosts Genome Editing Power in Plants

By Kimbra Cutlip

A team of scientists from the University of Maryland has developed a method to edit multiple genes in plants while simultaneously changing the expression of other genes. Known as CRISPR-Combo, this new tool introduced in a study published in Nature Plants will enable genetic engineering combinations that work together to boost functionality and improve breeding of new crops.

Ten years ago, a new technology called CRISPR-CAS9 made it possible for scientists to change the genetic code of living organisms, but the tool could only perform one function: removing or replacing genes in a genetic sequence. Later iterations of CRISPR allowed scientists to change genes’ expression by turning them on or off, without removing them from the genome. But each of these functions could only be performed independently in plants.

The benefits of manipulating more than one gene at a time can far outweigh the benefits of any one manipulation on its own, the researchers said. For example, imagine a blight raging through wheat fields, threatening farmers’ livelihoods and food security. If scientists could remove a gene from the wheat that makes it susceptible to the blight and simultaneously turn on genes that shorten the plant’s life cycle and increase seed production, they could rapidly produce blight-resistant wheat before the disease had the chance to do serious damage.

“The possibilities are really limitless in terms of the traits that can be combined,” said Yiping Qi, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, co-author of the study and leader of the study team. “But what is really exciting is that CRISPR-Combo introduces a level of sophistication to genetic engineering in plants that we haven’t had before.”

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