Dec 1, 2022
Biotechnology is key to crop improvement

A new organization consisting of plant biotechnologists is working to accelerate the development of new plant varieties to meet demand in coming decades. It’s a project organizers believe will positively impact growers’ ability to enhance crop production amid intensifying resource and climate challenges.

“The global capacity to produce plants using genetic engineering is critically short of demand,” said Joyce Van Eck, associate professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI). “There are too few facilities and people with the expertise to perform this work, which is having a negative impact on plant science research worldwide.”

Van Eck was the featured presenter in an August BTI webinar titled, “Feeding the Plant Through Plant Biotechnology.”

Biotechnology is key to crop improvement, enabling researchers to determine the functions of genes, which can then be bred into crops using traditional methods or modern engineering methods. Unfortunately, there is a big bottleneck: There aren’t enough service providers to deliver genetically engineered plants to the research community, nor are there enough scientists trained to engineer the plants.

To overcome this logjam, Van Eck was awarded a $500,000 grant (IOS 2210962) from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to create the Plant Genetic Engineering Network Research Coordination Network (PlantGENE).

PlantGENE is a network of plant biotechnologists that will work together to facilitate the sharing of technology, knowledge and protocols. The community-driven initiative also will have a website ( to serve as a repository of protocols, and the organization will host workshops and master classes to train people on how to engineer different species.

“PlantGENE will be a catalyst to bring groups together to tackle issues related to plant biotechnology and crop improvement,” Van Eck said. “The network will help increase capacity for plant genetic engineering, coordinate facilities to work together and train new scientists who can become experts in plant genetic engineering techniques.

“Ultimately, PlantGENE will increase capacity for delivering genetically engineered plants to the research community,” said Van Eck, who is also an adjunct assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.

A coordinator for PlantGENE, to be located at BTI, will work with facility managers at different facilities to streamline communication among the network, universities, private sector and international organizations.

“This person will make BTI the hub of a network coordinating training and workshops to get more people doing plant biotechnology,” Van Eck said.

The PlantGENE steering committee includes Van Eck, Veena Veena and Nigel Taylor of the Danforth Plant Science Center, Heidi Kaeppler of the University of Wisconsin, Keunsub Lee of Iowa State University, Wayne Parrott of the University of Georgia, and Bill Gordon-Kamm of Corteva Agriscience.

An online launch event for PlantGENE was in early October to gain more input from the research community and other stakeholders.

Effort keys on genetics

“Genetic engineering is similar to plant breeding where it’s the art and science of changing plants to produce the desired characteristics,” Van Eck said. “This is done in the lab so it’s different from plant breeding which is done in the field. Genetic engineering is a really a very key part of the functional genomics part of this toolbox of what we can use for crop improvement.”

Van Eck pointed to “the newest tool on the scene,” CRISPR gene editing, a genetic engineering technique in molecular biology by which the genomes of living organisms may be modified. It is based on a simplified version of the bacterial CRISPRCas9 antiviral defense system.

“There are natural mutants that occur in a plant species,” such as tomatoes, she said.

“There are some (tomatoes) more compact or easier to grow. They’re called determinant. The determinant is more compact when compared to the wild, long, crazy-growing tomatoes. That was due to a natural mutation that happened in a field back in the late 1920s.

“Over time,” she said, “a grower saw this more compact plant, and identified what gene was involved. Then, breeders started to use this mutant as source for their plants, especially for commercial tomato breeders. You can make the plants more manageable and more realistic to grow in.”

That is the how she views CRISPR technology – “a way to create these precise mutations that can help benefit different characteristics that people want to achieve.”

She said this can be a rapid process to fast track improvement of the species.

“We need to take advantage of whatever we can to make sure we have a secure food supply.”

There is a significant need to diversify the food supply and “explore the potential other plant species that we could look at to improve, and it’s amazing that there are 50,000 potential edible plant species and we rely on just 15 of those for the majority of our source of calories,” she said.

Climate change and increased pest and disease pressures adds to the onus put on researchers not only to investigate the potential for new crops, but to seek ways to stabilize current plant-based food sources.

“That’s where I see plant biology as a tool. It’s exploring the options we have to help with that food security,” she said. “I’m not sure how many people are aware that, as the climate changes, pests and pathogens are expanding their reach. You get fungal pathogens in places where they (weren’t)  before, and then times of the year where they didn’t used to be a problem.”

Diane Jofuku Okamuro, program director at NSF, said PlantGENE aligns with the agency’s history of supporting research on plants, their genomes and their role in our ecosystems and food systems.

“Connecting researchers with tools to test and validate the function of genes is critical to our ability to translate agriculturally relevant plant research into applications as demands on crop production increase and our climate changes. NSF is proud to support PlantGENE in doing that,” said Okamuro.

What is PlantGENE?

The Plant Genetic Engineering Network (PlantGENE) Research Coordination Network recognizes that plant transformation has been a major bottleneck for gene functional analysis and crop improvement applications. PlantGENE will facilitate technology and research coordination to improve plant transformation capacity.

  • PlantGENE is a community-driven network to share technologies and exchange ideas.
  • The effort facilitates research coordination to tackle existing or new barriers for plant transformation.
  • It will foster collaboration to broaden participation and increase diversity in plant biotechnology.

— Gary Pullano, VGN senior correspondent

Photo: The PlantGENE steering committee includes (from left), Heidi Kaeppler, University of Wisconsin; Bill Gordon-Kamm, Corteva Agriscience; Wayne Parrott, University of Georgia; Veena Veena, Danforth Plant Science Center; Joyce Van Eck, Boyce Thompson Institute; and Keunsub Lee, Iowa State University. Not pictured is Nigel Taylor, Danforth Plant Science Center. Photo: Boyce Thompson Institute.

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