HU researcher fortifies plant genomes by ‘editing’ DNA

MemoGene technology has already proven to be efficient in a wide variety of plants and crops, including peppers, cucumbers and potatoes.

February 21, 2011 05:39
2 minute read.

Vainstein 311. (photo credit: Hebrew University of Jerusalem)


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A breakthrough technique developed by a Hebrew University researcher to improve the genome of all plants by infecting them with a modified virus has been announced by the Yissum Research Development Company Ltd., the university’s technology transfer company, and Danziger Innovations Ltd., a two-year-old biotechnology firm engaged in the discovery and manufacture of new ways to improve traits in crops through breeding.

Prof. Alexander Vainstein from the Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture of the university’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, who invented the technique with Danziger R&D head Dr. Amir Zuker, said the unique method was precise, quick, effective, reliable and applicable to all plants.

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The plant virus is temporarily used to introduce genes that encode a special enzyme that is able to permanently change the plant genome in predetermined regions and in a specific manner. The plant cells manufacture these biological DNA “editing scissors” that then cut and change the plant genome in every virusinfected cell. The virus is then eliminated from the plant, and the seeds or vegetative tissues can be grown to produce fully modified plants, they explained.

They recently published details of their discovery in the “Breakthrough Technologies” section of the prestigious scientific journal Plant Physiology. The article describing the breakthrough technology was also chosen by the Faculty of 1000 (F1000) website, which highlights major research in various scientific fields.

The MemoGene technology has already proven to be efficient in a wide variety of plants and crops, including peppers, cucumbers, potatoes and tomatoes, as well as wheat, maize, cotton and canola.

With a growing world population and food shortage, say the researchers, improving plant traits to increase crop yield and improve their quality is one of the most important ways to avoid a global hunger crisis.

At present, plant genetic engineering techniques are labor-intensive, expensive, highly unpredictable and extremely crop specific – for example, techniques that work for the tomato won’t work with the potato. In addition, some plants are not even amenable to traditional genetic engineering but could be modified using the Memo- Gene technology.

“This invention is another testament to the innovative and influential research done at the Hebrew University. Our Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment is the only institute of higher education in Israel offering university degrees in agriculture and is largely responsible for Israel’s position as a world leader in cutting-edge agricultural technologies,” said Yissum CEO Yaacov Michlin.

“The MemoGene platform will revolutionize our ability to produce tailor-made varieties with new traits, increasing the value of agricultural and horticultural products, while also allowing for the deletion of negative and unwanted characteristics. It is a highly efficient method for breeding new varieties at reduced cost and time, with predictable results,” said Danziger Innovation’s CEO Micha Danziger.

“One of its important advantages is that this is a generic process that can be applied to many important crops with relatively minimal effort.”

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