Novel approach: TechAccel awards grant for gene editing, trial to focus on tomato plants

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06 Aug 2018 --- TechAccel, the Kansas City-based technology development company, has announced its selection of a grant recipient under the Venture Catalyst Science Translation and Innovative Research (STAIR) Grant program at The University of California (UC). The program will fund a novel method for genome editing and the trial will focus solely on tomato plants. TechAccel earlier committed to an expansion of the Venture Catalyst STAIR grant program, which is in its fifth year. TechAccel was also represented on the STAIR Grant selection committee that reviewed 29 applications from UC Davis researchers for this year’s award. The winning candidate receives funding for proof-of-concept research aimed at demonstrating commercial feasibility. 

Anne Britt, Ph.D., a professor in the UC Davis Plant Biology Department, will receive US$50,000 to perform a proof-of-concept of her technology – a novel method of rapid and efficient gene editing in a tomato plant.

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Anne Britt, Ph.D.,
Professor in the UC Davis Plant Biology Department

“Anne’s approach to delivering a CRISPR/Cas9 or other gene editing tool is potentially game-changing in its simplicity,” says Brad Fabbri, Ph.D., TechAccel’s Chief Science Officer. “For certain crops, the technology avoids the tissue culture and cell biology steps that are typically required to effect gene engineering in plants.”  

In addition to the TechAccel-funded grant, the program awarded five additional grants. 

Members of the TechAccel team will serve as mentors to the grant-winning researcher, and may also consider the project for future TechAccel investment, in alignment with the TechAccel business model. The company invests in innovative technology and funds science advancement programs to accelerate readiness for commercialization.

TechAccel began its collaboration with UC Davis in 2016 with its participation in the Venture Catalyst STAIR-Plus program, which supports STAIR grant recipients who successfully achieve their commercialization milestones.

Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, Fabbri comments: “Tomato plants are easy to propagate, have economic value, and the researchers already had good experience with them. Also, tomatoes can show evidence of trait changes, so you can easily see if the gene editing was successful. For example, you might change the attributes of the leaf and be able to recognize the change. So, overall, tomato plants were chosen for technical ease and convenience for the researchers. We believe that many other plant species can also be edited using this technique, and hope to test some of those (such as potato, lettuce or peppers) once the details are worked out in tomato.”

“There is a lot of excitement regarding gene editing as an advanced breeding tool for plants and animals, as well as a potential medical tool for the treatment of certain cancers and other diseases. Gene editing reagents such as CRISPR/Cas9 and other related family members are making part of the process easier than some previous methods (including TALONs and zinc fingers) by cutting the DNA in a very specific spot. There are still big challenges in actually delivering any of the gene editing reagents into a plant cell, and this technology in development is designed to just that,” he explains. 

If successful for tomato, additional plant species can be attempted, according to Fabbri. “Should the technology prove successful, it greatly reduces certain steps required to introduce a gene-editing reagent into a plant cell and regenerate a whole plant from an edited plant cell,” he notes. “Currently, this can be easily done for just some plants, and even within a particular plant species, many times some varieties work well, and others do not. Potentially, this method makes using gene editing as a plant breeding tool much more accessible.”

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Brad Fabbri, Ph.D., TechAccel’s Chief Science Officer

As gene editing technology advances with the introduction of reagents of the CRISPER/Cas type, it makes it more economically feasible for a plant breeder to use the technology on a minor crop, including fruits and vegetables. Many desirable plant traits can be introduced using gene editing technologies including improved nutrition, taste and aroma, lack of browning, and disease resistance. Traditional plant breeding methods could conceivably produce all these traits but at great cost and time.  

“Modern breeding methods including gene editing have the potential to provide the consumer with many more attractive choices for their food purchases, and also have a big positive impact in the developing world,” Fabbri states. 

In addition, at least in advanced economies, there is increasing interest in the consumer for quality and safe foods. Transgenic crops have delivered quality and safety on a massive scale, yet there is significant resistance to these technologies despite excellent safety and environmental benefits. 

“Gene editing can help plant breeders introduce a variety of traits that can significantly positively impact the food supply.  This includes the introduction of disease resistance to help save harvests, and many times avoid the use of chemicals such as fungicides. The technology can also be used to improve a plant’s taste and nutrition.”

“We, as an industry can educate the consumer that gene editing is just another form of plant breeding.  We can explain the benefits – it is much more precise and resource-efficient than the traditional methods of introducing mutations via chemical means or radiation, then spending years in the field to select the desirable mutations, and ‘back-crossing’ to get rid of the undesirable mutations.”

“What results from either the traditional methods or the new gene edited methods is the same, a precise and safe trait indistinguishable from one that might have naturally occurred,” Fabbri concludes.

By Elizabeth Green

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