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Israeli Scientists Make Historic New Plant Gene Breakthrough

Researchers from Tel Aviv University succeeded for the first time in history in developing a genome-scale technology that makes it possible to reveal the role of genes and traits in plants that have been hidden by functional redundancy until now. This has major implications for agriculture in the future because it will farmers to find the specific seeds that will grant the best yields. So, TAU’s technology commercialization company Ramot, in collaboration with the AgChimedes group, established the DisTree Company. TAU said this financial investment will allow DisTree to apply the new technology to a variety of crops, with the aim of “revolutionizing the genetics of the world of agriculture and enabling nutritional security in the age of climate crisis.”

The researchers point out that since the agricultural revolution, man has been used to improve plant varieties for agricultural purposes by creating genetic diversity. But until this recent development, it was only possible to examine the functions of single genes, which make up only 20% of the genome. For the remaining 80% of the genome, made up of genes grouped in families, there was no effective way, on the large scale of the whole genome, to determine their role in the plant.

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As a result of this unique development, the team of researchers managed to isolate and identify dozens of new features that had been overlooked until now. The development is expected to revolutionize the way agricultural crops are improved as it can be applied to most crops and agricultural traits, such as increased yield and resistance to drought or pests.

Israel Startup Nation is big on agtech. It boasts startups like CropX, which provides water solutions for farmers, Equinom, which offers plant based nutrition solutions, and SupPlant, an Israeli agtech startup that develops sensors that can send signals from plants.

In fact, Israel has always been at the forefront of aggrotech since the early days of the first Zionist settlements. The country may now be known more as Startup Nation for all of its success in the high tech world. But until recently it was best known for its agricultural innovations. The pioneers of early Israel famously drained swamps, planted orange groves (oranges are not indigenous to the Middle East) and irrigated deserts to grow all sorts of crops. Israel was so successful at this that the country early on sent experts to help third world nations in Africa develop their own agriculture.

The research was performed by postdoctoral student Dr. Yangjie Hu under the guidance of Prof. Eilon Shani and Prof. Itay Mayrose from the School of Plant Sciences and Food Security at Tel Aviv University’s Wise Faculty of Life Sciences. Scientists from France, Denmark, and Switzerland also participated in the research. The research was published in the prestigious journal Nature Plants.

According to Prof. Shani, “For thousands of years, since the agricultural revolution, man has been improving different plant varieties for agriculture by promoting genetic variation. But until a few years ago it was not possible to genetically intervene in a targeted manner, but only to identify and promote desirable traits that were created randomly. The development of gene editing technologies now allows precise changes to be made in a large number of plants.”

The researchers explain that despite the development of genetic editing technologies, such as CRISPR, several challenges remained that limited its application to agriculture. One of them was the need to identify as precisely as possible which genes in the plant’s genome are responsible for a specific desired trait to cultivate. The accepted method to address this challenge is to produce mutations, that is, to modify genes in different ways, and then to examine changes in the plant’s traits as a result of the mutation in the DNA and to learn from this about the function of the gene.

Thus, for example, if a plant with sweeter fruit develops, it can be concluded that the altered gene determines the sweetness of the fruit. This strategy has been used for decades, and has been very successful, but it also has a fundamental problem: an average plant such as tomato or rice has about 30,000 genes, but about 80% of them do not work alone but are grouped in families of similar genes. Therefore, if a single gene from a certain gene family is mutated, there is a high probability that another gene from the same family (actually a copy very similar to the mutated gene) will mask the phenotypes in place of the mutated gene. Due to this phenomenon, called genetic redundancy, it is difficult to create a change in the plant itself, and to determine the function of the gene and its link to a specific trait.

The researchers observed the traits that were manifested in the plants following the genome modifications, and when an interesting phenotype was observed in a particular plant. it was easy to know which genes were responsible for the change based on the sgRNA sequence that was inserted into it. Also, through DNA sequencing of the identified genes, it was possible to determine the nature of the mutation that caused the change and its contribution to the plant’s new properties. In this way, many new traits were mapped that until now were blocked due to genetic redundancy. Specifically, the researchers identified specific proteins that comprise a mechanism related to the transport of the hormone cytokinin, which is essential for optimal plant development.

Prof. Shani added, “The new method we developed is expected to be of great help to basic research in understanding processes in plants, but beyond that, it has enormous significance for agriculture: it makes it possible to efficiently and accurately reveal the pool of genes responsible for traits we seek to improve – such as resistance to drought, pests, and diseases, or increasing yields. We believe that this is the future of agriculture: controlled and targeted crop improvement on a large scale. Today we are applying the method we developed to rice and tomato plants with great success, and we intend to apply it to other crops as well.”

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