BERKELEY (August 5, 2020) – Newly emerged pathogens can lead to disease epidemics that create severe crop losses and threaten food security. The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) awarded a $900,000 Seeding Solutions grant to the University of California, Berkeley to address devastating disease epidemics through advanced gene editing technologies. 2Blades Foundation and Innovative Genomics Institute provided matching funds, for a total $3.2 million investment.
Currently, breeding plants for disease resistance is the most effective and ecologically sustainable way to control plant epidemics. To achieve this, scientists use traditional crop breeding to introduce, or stack, multiple resistance genes – though this is a time-consuming approach. Additionally, the effectiveness of stacking resistance genes in economically vital crops like wheat are often short lived as the pathogens are constantly evolving to overcome resistance.
“A virulent wheat pathogen would not only harm farmers, but can also result in food supply shortages, threatening food security,” said FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey. “Thus, scientists need a new approach to breeding wheat crops with greater disease resistance.”
Pathogens have special proteins that can cause plant disease. University of California, Berkeley researchers, led by Dr. Brian Staskawicz and Dr. Ksenia Krasileva, are using gene editing technology to stack resistance genes in the wheat crops that specifically recognize the pathogen’s proteins. By recognizing the pathogen’s proteins, the plant can fight the pathogen, even if the pathogen mutates.
In addition to using already cloned genes, this grant is also addressing the ability of combined computational and synthetic biology approaches to develop novel resistance genes. Outputs of the program will be advanced through The 2Blades Foundation’s wheat rusts consortium to ensure delivery of rust-resistant wheat.
“We are excited to employ gene editing in wheat, as it will allow us to reduce farm inputs and produce more sustainable wheat yields — more important than ever in the face of climate change,” said Staskawicz.
Ultimately, this project is accelerating the development of improved resistant wheat varieties and getting them to farmers. The resulting wheat varieties will have greater yields and require fewer chemical inputs. Improving the quality of wheat ensures the crop is robust enough to grow worldwide.
Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research
The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization originally established by bipartisan Congressional support in the 2014 Farm Bill, builds unique partnerships to support innovative and actionable science addressing today's food and agriculture challenges. FFAR leverages public and private resources to increase the scientific and technological research, innovation, and partnerships critical to enhancing sustainable production of nutritious food for a growing global population. The FFAR Board of Directors is chaired by Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum, Ph.D., and includes ex officio representation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation.