CIAT Research Associate Sandra Valdes holds a petri dish with germinating rice seeds that are part of a a study to prove if a single gene may offer resistance to the destructive hoja blanca virus. Photo by: Neil Palmer / CIAT

CIAT Research Assistant Alejandro Brand stood between stacks of glass jars and test tubes of what appear to be albino seedlings. He told us they’re “edited” cassava plantlets, proving that CRISPR-Cas9, a groundbreaking tool that can alter the genes of organisms, works in the crop.

In another room of the Genetic Transformation and Genome Edition Platform lab, Research Associate Sandra Valdes showed us Petri dishes with germinating rice seeds that could, in several months, grow to prove whether a single gene may offer resistance to the hoja blanca virus. The disease, which is prevalent in Latin America, bleaches the leaves of and eventually kills rice plants. The validation of the new trait is thanks again to CRISPR-Cas9 technology or what many have called “molecular scissors.”

Use of these molecular scissors in various fields of science is relatively new but is fast spreading. Known as genome editing, it involves introducing CRISPR-Cas9 into a gene and “cutting” it. The cell then repairs the damage, but when doing so, it will insert or delete portions of the DNA, the hereditary material of almost all organisms. That result, in the case of crops that CIAT are working on, is cassava, beans or rice with new or better traits. The experiment could also confirm if a particular gene has a specific trait, such as resistance to the hoja blanca virus.

At CIAT, research on genome editing started in 2015. In June of that year, researchers Masaki Endo and Seiki Toki of the Japanese National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences brought CRISPR-Cas9 to CIAT’s Colombia headquarters and tested it on rice plants; by December, CIAT — and the whole CGIAR system for that matter— had its first genome-edited crop: rice plants that had “droopy” instead of upright leaves. It was a way to prove the feasibility of using the tool.

Today, CIAT remains the only institute in Latin America to have expertise on genome editing for agricultural crops.

“With genome editing, the potential for improving and speeding up breeding of crops is huge,” said Paul Chavarriaga, who heads the Genetic Transformation and Genome Edition Platform. “It’s the best technology you have to modulate genes and create new variability, which is crucial to plants’ survival.”

 

CIAT Research Assistant Alejandro Brand holds genome-edited and typical cassava seedlings. Photo by: Neil Palmer / CIAT

Chavarriaga and his team are likewise exploring the use of genome editing to make it easier for people to digest beans. Some people get stomachache from consuming beans due to naturally occurring compounds such as polysaccharides.

Such research and more will take the spotlight next week in a symposium on genome editing and how it’s changing agricultural research. To be held at CIAT’s headquarters, the event will feature keynote remarks from Chavarriaga, Endo, Matt Begemann of Benson Hill Biosystems, and Matthew R. Willmann of Cornell University’s Plant Transformation Facility, as well as other experts from the center, academia, and the private sector in Colombia and elsewhere.

Symposium: Genome Editing – Changing Agricultural Research in Latin America will also discuss social perception of the tool, including how to overcome concerns and address myths.

“Genome editing is not only about improving traits of the crop such as resistance to a disease as a way to boost productivity; it’s also about improving traits that address human consumption issues,” Chavarriaga said. “This sets it apart from work on transgenics, which typically focuses on developing tools only to increase the productivity of a crop. But do you care about production when you buy something? No, you don’t. What you care about is how healthy it is for you.”

It would also benefit organizations working on genome editing to be open to the public about what they do, Chavarriaga added. They should be ready to answer questions about how a plant was edited, whether it is safe or edible, or if it can be grown locally.

According to Chavarriaga, private companies in Latin America are “knocking at our [CIAT] doors” to collaborate on genome editing.

He said: “Technology has to be out there so people get used to it, by handling it, by touching it, by knowing how to use it.”

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Additional information:

Symposium: Genome Editing – Changing Agricultural Research in Latin America is part of the DuPont Plant Sciences Symposia series, a DuPont Pioneer initiative that has been reaching more than 8,000 next-generation plant scientists since 2008. Free and accessible to the general public, the event will feature presentations, a panel discussion and a knowledge fair. Click here to know more information on the symposium.

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