Exchanging genes for the first time using CRISPR/Cas technology

For the first time, a team of researchers have not only exchange single genes but recombined entire chromosomes with the CRISPR/Cas technology.

As reported in Nature Plants, a team from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) has developed molecular scissors using CRISPR/Cas technology. This new development functions as a fine surgical instrument and can be used to modify genetic information in plants.

A pioneer of genome editing

Molecular biologist Professor Holger Puchta has dedicated his studies to discovering how plants can be cultivated more quickly and more precisely. For his CRISBREED project, Puchta received an Advanced Grant of the European Research Council (ERC) in the amount of €2.5m.

Puchta is considered a pioneer of genome editing. He uses molecular scissors to modify the DNA that carries the genetic information in crops. With the help of this new CRISPR/Cas technology, genes can be removed, inserted, or exchanged easily.

CRISPR/Cas stands for a certain section on the DNA (CRISPR – Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and an enzyme (Cas) that recognises this section and cuts the DNA precisely at this point. Crops produced by genome editing do not contain any DNA, which is why they are not to be equated with classical genetically modified organisms.

Exchanging arms between chromosomes

Within CRISBREED, researchers of the Chair for Molecular Biology and Biochemistry of KIT’s Botanical Institute headed by Puchta, in cooperation with Professor Andreas Houben from IPK, Gatersleben, have now achieved first decisive progress in using the molecular CRISPR/Cas scissors.

For the first time, they have exchanged arms between chromosomes of the thale cress model plant (Arabidopsis thaliana) with the help of the Cas9 protein originating from the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium. Puchta explains: “The genome consists of a certain number of chromosomes, on which the individual genes are arranged in fixed order.

“So far, CRISPR/Cas has enabled modifications of single genes only. Now, we can modify and recombine entire chromosomes. We now have the possibility to specifically control the modification of chromosomes and to strengthen or loosen the links between properties. This controlled restructuring of the genome will revolutionise future crop cultivation.”

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