Symposium message is strong: ISU a leader in genome editing of plant crops using new technologies

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When it comes to genome editing of crop plants using the latest tools and technologies, Iowa State University is at the forefront.

Martin Spalding

That was the message from a symposium held at ISU April 9-11. The “Genome Editing: Foundations and Applications” conference brought together scientific leaders from the U.S. and abroad who are developing genome editing resources and tools and applying them to a variety of organisms. The symposium focus was on two groundbreaking technologies used with crop plants, TALEN and CRISPR/Cas technologies.

“Use of these technologies for targeted genome editing has greatly expanded in recent years in the plant sciences,” said Martin Spalding, professor in the Iowa State Department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology and associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “And what was evident throughout the conference is that Iowa State is an international leader in this area, especially with maize and soybeans.”

TALEN (transcription activator-like effector nuclease) and CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)/Cas technologies facilitate precise genetic changes in plants by targeting specific sequences of DNA. These technologies greatly increase the pace at which basic understanding of individual gene function can be achieved. The technologies also can produce bioengineered crops that contain no transgenes and, as a result, may face less regulation than classic genetically modified organisms.

Spalding is the principal investigator and director of ISU’s Crop Bioengineering Consortium. The CBC’s researchers work together to utilize the innovative genome engineering technologies. Their overall goal is to address the urgent need to provide sufficient food, animal feed, and biorenewable fuels and chemicals for the world’s growing population.

ISU’s crop genome engineering efforts also are boosted by the Center for Plant Transformation, which is directed by Kan Wang, professor of agronomy and CBC co-PI. Researchers at the center develop more efficient methods for producing transgenic plants that will be safe for human health and the environment.

Another CBC co-PI, Bing Yang, associate professor of genetics, development and cell biology, and his team were the first to use the TALEN technology to change a crop plant when they modified a specific gene in rice to make the plant resistant to bacterial blight, a destructive disease that affects the food staple.

Recently, Yang and other ISU collaborators demonstrated that the CRISPR/Cas technology also was highly efficient in editing the rice genome.