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Editing Plant Genomes to Further Sustainable Agriculture

A new tool allows fast, cost-effective trait editing

by Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
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With the goal of reducing the time and cost it takes to bring an improved crop to the marketplace to improve agriculture sustainability, research conducted in the laboratory of Keith Slotkin, PhD, and with his collaborator, Veena Veena, PhD, director of the Plant Transformation Facility, was recently published in the scientific journal Nature. The publication “Transposase-assisted target site integration for efficient plant genome engineering” focuses on technology called TATSI (Transposase-Assisted Target Site Integration), which uses transposable elements to integrate custom DNA into specific sites in plant genomes.

The TATSI technology takes advantage of over two billion years of evolution of plant transposable elements, which naturally function as honed molecular machines to insert DNA into the genome. The high-frequency and high-precision target site integration of custom DNA into plant genomes enables the faster and less expensive production of gene-edited plants to address global challenges in agriculture, climate and the environment.

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A critical bottleneck in modern crop improvement is the low frequency and error-prone integration of foreign DNA into the plant genome, hampering genome editing approaches for crop improvement. The CRISPR/Cas system functions like a pair of molecular "scissors" to cut the genome and introduce site-specific changes to the DNA. But current methods lack robust ways to add custom DNA accurately and efficiently at those edited sites. TATSI technology takes advantage of the molecular “glue” feature of transposable elements to provide custom "cut-and-paste" genome editing when combined with CRISPR/Cas. The “scissors + glue” combination enables an order-of-magnitude increase in the rate of targeted DNA integration in plant genomes, allowing for custom improvement of plants through the addition of important traits such as virus resistance, elevated nutrient levels, or better oil composition.

The research on TATSI started in 2019 following the Danforth Center’s event Conversations: Big Ideas 2.0, a competition in which a team from the Slotkin lab proposed harnessing the power of transposable elements for crop improvement. Often referred to as “junk DNA,” transposable elements comprise over 70% of corn genome. Using the enzyme called transposase encoded by certain transposable elements, the big idea was a new genome editing tool that could enable development of a wide variety of new traits fast, better and cheaper. The Slotkin team won the competition and received seed money to initiate their research.  

Since then, the Slotkin lab has garnered research funding from Bayer Crop Science and the US National Science Foundation (NSF). Further investment from the Danforth Center’s proof-of-concept fund and NSF resulted in prototypes and pre-commercial development. “Born out of the Big Ideas 2.0 competition, this project changed the course of the research we’re doing today and into the future,” said Slotkin. “It is a real testament to the broader ‘focus-on-impact’ attitude of the Danforth Center.”

-Note: This news release was originally published on the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center website. As it has been republished, it may deviate from our style guide.