CRISPR Unveils Plant Gene Potential

Breakthrough method revolutionizes agricultural crop improvement for enhanced properties
Since the agricultural revolution, mankind has strived to enhance plant varieties through genetic diversity. However, until recently, our understanding was limited to the functions of individual genes, which account for just 20% of the genome. The remaining 80%, comprised of genes grouped in families, remained a mystery on a large genomic scale.

In a groundbreaking achievement, Tel Aviv University researchers have harnessed the power of CRISPR technology to develop an innovative and scalable genetic modification method. This breakthrough allows us to uncover the roles and characteristics of duplicated genes in plants. As a result, the team has successfully identified numerous overlooked features, paving the way for a revolutionary approach to crop improvement. This remarkable development has the potential to revolutionize agricultural practices across a wide range of crops and traits, including increased yields and enhanced resistance to drought and pests.

Overcoming Genetic Redundancy
This groundbreaking research was led by postdoctoral student Dr. Yangjie Hu, under the guidance of Prof. Eilon Shani and Prof. Itay Mayrose from the School of Plant Sciences and Food Security at TAU’s The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences. Collaborating with scientists from France, Denmark, and Switzerland, the team utilized the CRISPR gene editing technology along with bioinformatics and molecular genetics methods to develop this novel gene-location method. The research was published in the prestigious journal Nature Plants.

“We wanted to apply this technique to improve the control of creating mutations in plants for the purposes of agricultural improvement, and specifically to overcome the common limitation posed by genetic redundancy.” – Prof. Itay Mayrose

Genetic redundancy, caused by gene families, has long posed a challenge in plant research. Previous methods of genetic intervention were limited by the inability to precisely identify genes responsible for specific traits. The accepted method to address this challenge is to produce mutations, that is, to modify genes in different ways, and then to examine changes in the plant’s traits as a result of the mutation in the DNA and to learn from this about the function of the gene.

Thus, for example, if a plant with sweeter fruit develops, it can be concluded that the altered gene determines the sweetness of the fruit. This strategy has been used for decades, and has been very successful, but it also has a fundamental problem: an average plant such as tomato or rice has about 30,000 genes, but about 80% of them do not work alone but are grouped in families of similar genes. Therefore, if a single gene from a certain gene family is mutated, there is a high probability that another gene from the same family (actually a copy very similar to the mutated gene) will mask the phenotypes in place of the mutated gene. Due to this phenomenon, called genetic redundancy, it is difficult to create a change in the plant itself, and to determine the function of the gene and its link to a specific trait.


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