A team of researchers at the University of Georgia has found a way to identify gene regulatory elements that could help produce "designer" plants and lead to improvements in food crops at a critical time. They published their findings in two separate papers in Nature Plants. With the world population projected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, world food production will need to rise by 70% and food production in the developing world will need to double, according to estimates from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. Improvements in crop plants could play a key role in that effort.
The team, led by Bob Schmitz, demonstrated an ability to identify cis-regulatory elements, or CREs, in 13 plant species, including maize, rice, green beans and barley. Cis-regulatory elements are regions of noncoding DNA that regulate neighboring genes. If a gene and its CRE can be identified, they can be treated as a modular unit, sometimes called a biobrick. Targeting CREs for editing offers a more refined tool than editing genes, according to Schmitz, associate professor of genetics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
"Gene editing can be like a hammer. If you target the gene, you pretty much break it," he said. "Targeting CREs, which are involved in controlling gene expression -- how a particular characteristic appears -- allows you to turn gene expression up or down, similar to a dial. It gives us a tool to create a whole range of variation in expression of a gene."
Soybeans will be one of the plants researchers will target under the NSF funding.