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Crispr Deployed to Boost Plant Disease Resistance

Junqi Song

Junqi Song (Texas A&M AgriLife Research)

5 July 2018. A plant science lab in Dallas is designing a new use of the emerging genome editing technique known as Crispr to add more resistance to plant diseases in two staple food crops. The research is carried out in the plant immunity lab led by Junqi Song, part of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research network.

Song and colleagues aim to increase the natural resistance of plants to disease, particularly late blight disease, a common and long-standing problem among growers of potatoes and tomatoes. Late blight disease is caused by a fungus-like oomycete pathogen called Phytophthora infestans that infects potato tubers and tomato leaves. The disease spreads easily in wet conditions, with spores traveling through the air, and as a result can quickly cause damage to entire fields of potato or tomato crops. The Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s is attributed to late blight disease.

Song’s lab is using Crispr to build in greater resistance to late blight disease in these two key crops. Crispr — short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats — is most associated with correcting inherited medical disorders, but is also gaining more uses in agriculture. It’s a genome-editing process based on bacterial defense mechanisms that use RNA to identify and monitor precise locations in DNA. The actual editing of genomes with Crispr employs enzymes that cleave DNA strands at the desired points, with Crispr-associated protein 9, or Cas9, being the enzyme used for the longest period.

Genetic engineering to remove, or knock out, specific plant characteristics has been tried before to protect late blight disease, but in this case, the AgriLife lab is using Crispr to take a different approach. Song notes in an AgriLife statement that these previous knock-out genetic engineering techniques can provide broad protection against the disease, but at a high price. He says that “successes from knock-out editing come at a cost to many other aspects of the plant’s physical health and other characteristics.”

Instead, the lab plans to insert, or knock in, a new set of genetic regulators using Crispr/Cas9. Song acknowledges this process is more complex, but it should allow for potato and tomato crops to increase their resistance to late blight disease without doing harm to the plants. The added genetic regulators are expected to help the plants’ existing genes better resist infection from Phytophthora infestans and other disease-causing microbes.

The researchers believe this approach can be extended to other crops, including wheat, rice, cotton, strawberry, carrot and citrus to meet increasing needs worldwide. “There is a growing demand for agricultural production as global populations continue to grow,” Song adds. “We will need to develop increasingly efficient systems to meet this demand and hopefully our work is a step in the right direction.”

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