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Future of CRISPR technology in crops reviewed

In a comprehensive review in Nature Plants the future of CRISPR technology in crops is reviewed.

Yiping Qi, assistant professor in Plant Science & Landscape Architecture at the University of Maryland, is looking far beyond traditional applications (genome editing) of CRISPR technology in his latest publication in Nature Plants.

CRISPR as a binding tool

“When people think of CRISPR, they think of genome editing, but in fact CRISPR is really a versatile system that allows you to home in on a lot of things to target, recruit, or promote certain aspects already in the DNA,” says Qi. “You can regulate activation or suppression of certain genes by using CRISPR not as a cutting tool, but instead as a binding tool to attract activators or repressors to induce traits.”

Gene shuffling

Additionally, Qi discusses the prospect of recruiting proteins that can help to visualise DNA sequences, and the potential for grouping desirable traits together in the genome. “I call this gene shuffling,” says Qi. “This is designed to move very important trait genes close to each other to physically and genetically link them so they always stick together in traditional crossbreeding, making it much easier to select for crops with all the traits you want.”

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CRISPR technology could be potentially used in plants to screen for traits that contribute to disease and pest resistance, resiliency, and crop yield.  - Photos: Ruud Ploeg
CRISPR technology could be potentially used in plants to screen for traits that contribute to disease and pest resistance, resiliency, and crop yield. - Photos: Ruud Ploeg

Crop yield

CRISPR technology has already enhanced screenings for genes and traits in human health by using a library of tens of thousands of guide molecules that are tailored for targeting selected gene sets at the genome scale. This system could be potentially used in plants to screen for traits that contribute to disease and pest resistance, resiliency, and crop yield.

“This not only helps with breeding, but also helps categorise gene functioning much more easily,” says Qi. “Mostly, these studies have been done in human cells, and crops are lagging behind. I see that as one future aspect of where plant science can harness some of these different applications, and my lab has already been doing some of this work.”

“Not all claims that are made for CRISPR functionality in humans and animals are going to be true or applicable in plants, so we are looking at what works and what we can do to optimise these tools for crops.”

Sustain crop improvement

“How to feed the world down the road – that’s what motivates me every day to come to work,” says Qi. “We will have 10 billion people by 2050, and how can we sustain crop improvement to feed more people sustainably with climate change and less land? I really think that technology should play a big role in that.”

Also read: Pioneer CRISPR-Cas: GMO rules frustrate innovation

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