Ground-cherries: will they be the next berry crop?

physalis

Physalis fruits look like golden marbles, larger than a blueberry, smaller than a grape. Carl Zimmer tried one, liked the rich pineapple-orange taste and wrote about their crispy future in his new book (“She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity”). Ground-cherries, as they are called, belong to the same family as tomatoes but are an impossible challenge for traditional breeding because they have four copies of each chromosome rather than two. Continue reading

CRISPR boosts rice yield

zhu-stresses

Jian-Kang Zhu (courtesy of Purdue University)

Around 30% more grain. This is the result announced in PNAS by Chinese researchers that have made the most of CRISPR’s multiplexability in rice. By simultaneously targeting multiple genes, the editing technique is a boon for scientists struggling with plants’ genetic redundancies. Continue reading

Three hopes for CRISPR

easter eggs

Off-target paper retraction: Nature Methods has retracted a controversial study questioning CRISPR precision, after its authors admitted they were probably wrong. This blog’s wish is that future studies on CRISPR flaws and virtues are as reliable as the genome-editing technique.

Deregulation statement: US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has announced that USDA will not regulate edited plants as long as they could have been created through conventional breeding. Let’s hope Europe will follow the example.

Gene therapy going “organic”: that’s the hope expressed by Merlin Crossley, when commenting his Nature Genetics paper on mutations beneficial to patients with β-thalassemia and sickle cell anemia. The word organic here means that fetal hemoglobin production can be boosted without inserting foreign DNA.

Editing tobacco for drugs rather than cigs

newcotiana tobacco plantsSmoking is an addiction; tobacco, however, is a model plant full of virtues. Docile to biotech interventions, metabolically exuberant, able to churn out plenty of proteins. Now it has attracted 7.2 million euros through an EU research project aiming to harvest biopharmaceuticals by harnessing the power of photosynthesis and new plant breeding techniques. Continue reading

CRISPR at the EU Court

advocate-general-opinionAgbiotech supporters and opponents have been waiting for months for the opinion of the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice, hoping that it would settle the fateful question: do edited plants follow the same legislation as GMOs? The answer, however, does not appear to be conclusive and has been variously interpreted. Nature, The Scientist, and The Guardian are cautiously optimistic, but this Euractiv article is even more interesting. Uncertainty is the prevailing mood in this field. Continue reading

Relieving the IP burden on ag research

broad-pioneer

CRISPR is cheap and easy enough to be employed in every lab not just by major ag-biotech companies. A serious roadblock standing in the way of researchers, however, threatened to limit the technology potential for plant breeding: intellectual property (IP) rights. The good news is that two major patent holders, DuPont Pioneer and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, have agreed to create a joint licensing framework for genome editing in agriculture. As a result, academic researchers are allowed to use CRISPR on plants free of charge, while biotech companies interested in commercial ag applications have a simplified procedure to access to the tools they need. Continue reading

Editing the celiac diet. Is it GM bread?

gluten-free

Wheat contains many genes coding for proteins that are toxic to people with celiac disease (gliadins), but CRISPR could edit them all out. Researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (Córdoba, Spain) have managed to knockout up to 35 of these genes, reducing immunoreactivity by up to 85%. The 100% goal now seems to be at hand. But is biotech “gluten-free” bread tasty? And is it going to reach the market? We asked plant scientist Francisco Barro, corresponding author of the paper recently published in Plant Biotechnology Journal. Continue reading