Wheat School: CRISPR technology could be a boon for wheat breeding


Wheat breeding is a poor cousin when you compare it to the investment and resources corn and soybean plant breeders have at their disposal to develop new and improved plant genetics. The arrival of CRISPR technology, however, is giving wheat breeders hope that they may finally get a leg up on their big-crop cousins.

At the recent C&M Seeds Industry Day, University of Guelph plant biology associate professor Lewis Lukens told a packed house that wheat could benefit the most from the gene editing technology, which makes surgical adjustments to DNA inside plants to produce traits beneficial for farmers.

Since it involves editing existing genes rather than introducing foreign DNA, there’s no discernible difference between a plant that’s been modified using the genome editing process and a plant developed through years of traditional breeding. That means products produced from CRISPR technology are considered non-GMO.

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CRISPR will make it easier for breeders to navigate the wheat genome and target and modify individual genes, says Lukens. “Wheat has a complex genome and there are usually three copies of each gene. This technology will change all three of those copies at one time.” Other species such as corn and soy usually have one copy of each gene and breeders can rely on other methods to change the one gene.

When it comes to wheat, breeders typically focus on three areas of genetic improvement – yield, quality and disease resistance. Lukens says CRISPR technology will be most beneficial for simple traits that include many disease resistance genes. It will also help get new traits to farmers much faster.

Lukens expects the technology will soon become a key component of wheat breeding programs. “Right now the technology is not embedded within the development pipeline, but that will happen quite quickly.”

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