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K-State Research and Extension

Gene-editing technology can shorten wheat breeding process

What we are doing:
Eduard AkhunovFood security and the food supply are vital to the world's future. With the increasing population size and a decline in the amount of land available for growing crops, those in the industry need to intensify agriculture in a sustainable way. Kansas State University researchers are contributing to global food security by improving genes in wheat varieties using a gene-editing technology.

CRISPR-Cas9 technology, introduced in 2012 and featured on the April 29 edition of "60 Minutes," is a simple yet powerful tool for editing genomes, the complete set of genetic material present in a cell. Eduard Akhunov, professor of wheat genetics and pathology, said it allows researchers to easily change DNA sequences, creating new variants of a gene with improved properties, or fix known defects in a gene.

This same process is used in traditional wheat breeding, but it often takes as many as 7-10 years to affect the improvements that CRISPR technology can enact in a much shorter time. K-State's work with wheat is featured in the inaugural issue of the CRISPR Journal, which was released in mid-February.

Our impact:

  • K-State researchers are working with a suite of 25 wheat genes controlling traits that have the potential to affect yield. Using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, they have the ability to improve each of these genes before testing them in the greenhouse, and eventually evaluating them in field conditions.
  • Once they identify genes that beneficially affect yield-related traits in wheat, the researchers work with wheat breeders to transfer these gene-editing advances to top varieties grown in Kansas and other U.S. breeding programs.
  • Nothing new is added to the resulting wheat variety, only an improvement in the performance of the wheat's genes.
  • The yield component traits that K-State scientists are improving include seed size, number of seeds per spike and the number of tillers per plant.

"Hypothetically, if you would wait several million years, or screen thousands and thousands of wheat lines collected across the globe, you will likely recover mutations in the same location in the genome that will have the same effect on gene function. But by using the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, you can achieve it in a single wheat line within a year."
— Eduard Akhunov, professor of wheat genetics and pathology



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