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FFAR Grant Addresses Wheat Crop Disease Using Gene Editing

  • Next Generation Crops

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 & 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. Thus, scientists need a new approach to breeding wheat crops with greater disease resistance. Sally Rockey, Ph.D.
Executive Director Emeritus

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 & Agriculture Research

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund bold research addressing big food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agenda. FFAR’s model matches federal funding from Congress with private funding, delivering a powerful return on taxpayer investment. Through collaboration and partnerships, FFAR advances actionable science benefiting farmers, consumers and the environment.

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