From the lab to the land, scientists seed solutions to agricultural challenges through plant breeding innovation.

There was once a time, in the not-so-distant past, when a phone was only that—a phone. You could really only do one thing with it: place a call across town, across the country, or across the world, supposing you could foot the long-distance fees. (Of course, there were no roaming charges then. You could only roam as far as the spiral cord tethered to the nearest wall-mounted phone allowed.)

Fast-forward to today, when phones are mobile, sleek and smart—sometimes smarter than their operators. Today’s phone isn’t just a phone. It’s an alarm clock, a calendar, a calculator, a camera, a computer, a flashlight, a GPS and more, all rolled into one palm-sized, portable package. Nowadays, you don’t need many devices, each performing a single task. You need a single device performing many.

 

“Genome editing has been the technology dreamed about by plant biologists and life scientists for ages”

Dr. Kan Wang

Director, ISU Center for Plant Transformation

“Rather than having to rely on external inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, we want to make plants more robust by enhancing their own genetics,”

Dr. Kan Wang

Director, ISU Center for Plant Transformation

Today’s seeds, like today’s phones, must perform many functions—resisting pests, tolerating drought and producing abundantly. But unlike modern smartphones, the technology in modern crops is written in genetic code, not software code.  The field of science is destined to improve production in the world’s farm fields as scientists unlock plants’ potential, harnessing the natural variations and robustness of plant genomes in targeted ways.

Building on generations of scientific advances in plant breeding, researchers at Iowa State University are getting at the heart of what makes heartier plants. Using CRISPR gene editing, they’ve been able to accelerate plant improvement and incorporate new, desirable characteristics in food and biofuel crops.

That’s because scientists can achieve the same results through gene editing as through traditional plant breeding methods—but in a much more precise and targeted way.

ISU researchers have already successfully produced gene-edited corn and switchgrass, a plant used to make cellulosic biofuels. Scientists were able to target a gene that increased branching in the grass plant, enhancing its efficiency as a source of biomass.

Now, ISU scientists are building on these advances by incorporating other desirable characteristics in modern crops. Like software developers adding more apps to an iPhone operating system, plant breeders can continue to add more functional characteristics to crop varieties, enhancing their productivity and versatility. Fertilizer use efficiency, drought tolerance, disease and pest resistance, high yield, enhanced nutrition—these characteristics can be pinpointed in the genome, then integrated into a plant’s DNA through precision gene editing.

Just as we value our modern smartphones because they do more than their prehistoric (or at least pre-microprocessor) predecessors, farmers value modern seeds because they do more than older varieties. If scientists can use the diversity in a seed’s field of genes to protect it from pests, shelter it from severe drought or help it use fertilizer more efficiently, that’s a good call—for sustainability, for the environment and for global food security.