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NIFA Grant will Boost KSU Efforts to Edit Wheat’s Genetic Code

NIFA Grant will Boost KSU Efforts to Edit Wheat’s Genetic Code
Eduard Akhunov working in his lab. (Image courtesy of K-State Research and Extension

One of the big goals of this project is to assess the value of this new gene editing technology for breeding improved wheat varieties.

- Eduard Akhunov, associate professor of plant pathology

Kansas State University has received $300,000 from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to conduct a gene-editing project on wheat varieties.

Novel gene-editing technology — developed just in the past few years — allows researchers to selectively modify parts of the wheat’s genome so it can perform better in farmers’ fields.

The funded project is part of the International Wheat Yield Partnership, aimed at unlocking genetic yield potential of wheat and increasing the world’s wheat production by as much as 50 percent in the next two decades. NIFA’s award is for the first year of work, and will total $1 million over three years.

“We are in a good position to start editing genes that have a potential to improve wheat yield,” said Eduard Akhunov, associate professor of plant pathology and the principal investigator on this project.

Akhunov and Harold Trick, a professor of plant pathology, will work with Oklahoma State University wheat geneticist and breeder Liuling Yan to create wheat lines with edited, yield-related genes. Kansas State University wheat breeders will evaluate edited genes in locally adapted wheat lines.

Gene editing is a process of selectively modifying parts of wheat’s genetic code to improve its performance. The technology uses a short gene sequence called a guide RNA to direct an enzyme to specific genes in the huge wheat genome.

The enzyme acts like a pair of molecular scissors to cut wheat DNA and introduce desired changes into the genetic code.

“The speed and precision of editing offered by this technology will allow researchers to quickly analyze multiple genes,” said Akhunov, adding that Kansas State University researchers have worked with gene editing for wheat since 2014.

“We have already selected a set of genes that have been (identified) in wheat or other crops,” Akhunov said. “We will be modifying those genes in wheat and will study the effect of gene editing on wheat yield.”

Once a wheat variety’s genes have been edited, it can be crossed with regular wheat lines, resulting in a gene-edited wheat with native genes.

“These wheat lines are considered non-transgenic,” Akhunov said. “In gene editing, we make a small correction in the genetic code of a native wheat gene; we don’t put a foreign gene in there.”

He added that Kansas State University researchers have developed the needed molecular biology and other biological data that will be deposited into public repositories for others to use in research and breeding programs.

“One of the big goals of this project is to assess the value of this new gene editing technology for breeding improved wheat varieties,” Akhunov said. “You have a new tool, and everybody talks about how great it is, but it’s not part of the regular breeding pipeline. So what we hope to do is to make it one of the new tools in the breeder’s toolbox for developing improved wheat varieties.”

Also part of this project, Sarah Evanega, director of the Alliance for Science at Cornell University, will develop educational lessons to help students and researchers communicate effectively with the public about this and other innovative technologies for crop improvement.

The three-year project began Dec. 1. In addition to NIFA, the university’s work is supported by the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station, the Kansas Wheat Commission and the Kansas Wheat Improvement Center.

 

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