CRISPR-Cas for accelerated domestication of wild plants

Amalendu Upadhyaya
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New Delhi, April 17: Domestication can tame unruly wild plants into crop plants but may take thousands of years. A group of researchers from the ICAR-National Rice Research Institute, Cuttack, Odisha, and the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, New Delhi, have suggested genome editing technologies to fasten the process of crop domestication for sustainable food production.

It took around 9000 years to develop modern-day corn from wild grass, teosinte. The revolutionary gene editing technology can drastically reduce the time required for domestication.

“Gene editing could accelerate ‘de novo domestication’ or ‘new domestication’. This technology can rapidly modify wild plants to develop new crops keeping their diversity, disease, and pest-resistant ability intact. We can even revive the taste,” informed the lead researcher Dr Kutubuddin Ali Molla.

Modern breeding is focused on producing more, often ignoring other vital traits. Yield-focused breeding has resulted in a severe loss of genetic diversity essential for taste, disease and pest resistance, and climate resilience. In their study, the researchers have reviewed the demonstrated examples of ‘new domestication’ of wild plants like ground cherry, wild tomato, wild rice, and sea barley grass. In these, genome editing was used to remove many bad characteristics of those wild plants keeping the good traits intact.

CRISPR-Cas is one of the new gene-editing tools to install desired genetic variation precisely in a target gene. Traditionally, plants were treated with irradiation or chemicals to induce new genetic variations. Like a shot in the dark, it provided no choice over the locations where the desired genetic variation could be introduced. With CRISPR-Cas, target-specific genes that are responsible for domestication can be worked upon,” researchers explain.

They have also shared other technical know-how for efficiently applying CRISPR-Cas in wild species to bring them into mainstream agriculture.

“We gathered information on domestication genes of crops like rice, wheat, maize, tomato, soybean, barley, sunflower, sorghum, millets, Amaranthus, common beans, rapeseed, cabbage, strawberry, grapes, pea, and pumpkin. This study provides foundational information to domesticate wild relatives of crop species to bring back many lost traits,” informs Dr Molla.

Only 30 plant species fulfil 95% of human calorie needs. We rely on a few input-intensive staple crops for our food security. There are nearly 300,000 vascular plant species available in the wild. New domestication of wild species can address food security issues and modern agriculture challenges like unsustainability, nutrient-poorness, and climate vulnerability.

“Efforts must be directed to generate desired quality genome information of selected wild species, identify genetic elements relevant to domestication, and develop reliable methods to deliver CRISPR reagents into wild plant cells. Indigenous knowledge and communities could provide crucial inputs in de novo domestication programs. Hence, fair and equitable sharing of benefits should also be taken into consideration,” researchers recommend.  

An article based on the study has been published in the Journal of Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology. The research team comprises Debasish Pattnaik, S.P. Avinash, Sonali Panda, Kailash C. Bansal, Mridul Chakraborti, Meera Kumari Kar, Mirza J. Baig, and Kutubuddin A. Molla. The study has been supported by the University Grant Commission (UGC), the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the Government of India-INSPIRE program, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

(India Science Wire) 

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