CRISPR is an innovative technology that has the potential to grow new opportunities for farmers in the form of higher yielding, more robust crops that are more resistant to herbicides, diseases and weather conditions. That’s why the Ohio Soybean Council has invested in research with Feng Qu, associate professor of molecular plant virology and plant resistance at The Ohio State University. He and his team are exploring ways to make CRISPR even more effective for soybean growers.

CRISPR is a precise and effective way to genetically alter plants and animals using a bacteria protein called Cas9. Instead of introducing foreign genes to alter DNA as in GMO technology, CRISPR modifies the existing sequence by breaking it into two halves using an RNA-guided protein. Those breaks are then repaired to produce a new DNA sequence.

According to Qu, there are multiple ways this technology can be used to specifically enhance soybean traits. In traditional breeding programs, it can be difficult to combine desirable traits like increased yields, disease resistance or drought tolerance in one variety because they are controlled by multiple genes.

“It can be hard to separate the ‘good’ genes from ‘bad’ ones because they’re oftentimes connected,” explained Qu. “The beauty of CRISPR is that it can be used to modify individual genes with high accuracy.”

For example: Some plant genes, called susceptibility genes, are used by fungi to cause more devastating diseases in plants. These genes can be turned off with CRISPR so plants become resistant to those diseases. There are also yield traits, such as the size of the beans, that are determined by just a few differences in genes that can easily be modified through CRISPR. The benefits of this technology extend beyond the farm to consumers who may demand soybeans with specialized traits in the future.

With so much potential in the pipeline, Qu and his team are busy exploring ways to make the DNA sequence repair more efficient. Right now, the most predictable way to mend the break involves creating a copy of it. This process is less efficient than stitching the severed ends back together.

“If successful, our project will allow us to carry out CRISPR editing faster because we will be able to bypass the tissue culture in generating gene edited soybeans. This improved procedure will save costs primarily by shortening the time needed to carry out the CRISPR editing, as well as savings in reagents needed for tissue cultures,” said Qu.

Interested in learning more about Qu’s plant genetic research? Read this article on virus-induced gene silencing.


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