Improving the nutrition and stress tolerance of wheat using gene editing

November 16, 2023

The Crawford Fund’s highly sought after Student Awards are one way we  support and encourage the next generation of Australians into study, careers and volunteering in international agricultural research. The next round of awards will open later this month!

With the resumption of global travel, many NextGen Student Awardees are back travelling overseas to undertake projects, with quite a few involved in our Instagram campaign, reporting when they are on the ground.

Oscar Fung, a PhD student from the University of Melbourne, visited the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom to learn the latest CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing techniques to improve the plant growth and grain quality of bread wheat. He shares his experience below.

The John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom (top) and Oscar at work in the laboratory.

“The Crawford Fund Student Award enabled me to travel to the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom where I learnt the latest open access techniques in bread wheat transformation and gene editing,” said Oscar.

“My PhD research uses biotechnological strategies such as CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to improve nutrition and plant growth in bread wheat. However, CRISPR-Cas9- based gene editing in wheat is challenging due to its complex genome and low regeneration efficiency from tissue culture,” he explained.

Oscar explained that although bread wheat is grown on more land than any other crop and produces one-fifth of the calories consumed by humans, conventional breeding methods can take up to 12 years to develop a new bread wheat variety. Biotechnological strategies, on the other hand, offer a more precise approach to enhancing crop traits and recent legislative changes in Australia have increased the feasibility of introducing gene edited to growers and consumers.

“Gene editing via CRISPR-Cas9 is an emerging toolkit for plant breeders, however, published examples of gene editing in bread wheat are rare, mainly due to its complex genome and low regeneration efficiency. In addition, few Australian laboratories have the capacity to insert DNA segments into the bread wheat genome and regenerate healthy plants. Some laboratories employ IP-protected transformation methods. The John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom houses a world-class crop transformation platform (BRACT) that use open-access protocols including a new technique that incorporates a chimeric protein (GRF-GIF). This protein increases wheat regeneration from 33% to 78%, representing a huge leap forward in bread wheat biotechnology,” said Oscar.

“Upon my arrival, I joined Professor Cristobal Uauy’s laboratory. Crisobal Uauy is a highly respected group leader at the John Innes Centre and a world-renowned wheat geneticist. I was able to work with researchers and technicians who guided me throughout the bread wheat transformation and CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing process,” he said.

After five months, Oscar had generated around 100 bread wheat plants with five different CRISPR- Cas9 transgenes, with these bread wheat varieties representing novel strategies to improve nutrition and stress tolerance in bread wheat.

“Around half of my plants have reached maturity and are ready for harvest in a glasshouse at the John Innes Centre. I will return to the John Innes Centre in the second half of 2023 to screen for mutations and identify a smaller number of plants that no longer contain the transgene. The resulting grain will be sent to the Post-Entry Quarantine facility at the Australian Grains Genebank in Horsham, Victoria,” he said

After isolating any interesting mutations, Oscar will conduct hydroponic, glasshouse and field trials to assess the effect of those mutations on grain nutritional content and tolerance to stress conditions such as iron deficiency.

“Few research groups in Australia have grown gene edited wheat under field conditions. These gene edited lines represent highly innovative strategies for increased nutrition and stress tolerance in the globally and locally important bread wheat crop,” he said.

Australia has recently changed legislation to make working on gene-edited crops in Australia more efficient. Tools like CRISPR- based gene editing may become integral to the toolkit used by plant breeders to develop new crop varieties explained Oscar, so it is crucial for Australia to stay updated on the latest biotechnological strategies for crop improvement.

“Thanks to the Crawford Fund, I had the opportunity to travel to the John Innes Centre and collaborate with global leaders in bread wheat research, such as Cristobal Uauy, and gain expertise in all aspects of gene editing in bread wheat. I now possess the knowledge and connections to introduce the latest open-access approaches in plant biotechnology to Australia,” said Oscar.

“The most valuable outcome of my research visit was the connections I fostered with numerous researchers at the John Innes Centre. They formed a supportive and collaborative community of outstanding researchers who were always willing to help. The research visit broadened my expertise and fostered valuable collaborations, positioning me to contribute to the advancement of bread wheat research in Australia,” he concluded.