The Crisis of Plant Transformation (And the Barrier to Improved Agricultural Productivity)
Why we should care
Innovative approaches are needed to sustainably improve agricultural productivity and address global food insecurity. One such approach is plant genetic transformation — the process of introducing DNA, RNA and proteins into plant cells and tissue, followed by the regeneration of those transformed materials into whole plants. It can even help advance the genetic study and improvement of crop plants. Unfortunately, its full potential is not being realized.
- Plant transformation enables the study of gene function and creates opportunities for improved crop productivity and resilience.
- Lack of insight about how various plants respond to transformation efforts and the overall inefficiency of current transformation protocols limit progress.
- New and more inclusive models for partnering and collaboration are needed to achieve improved food security, nutrition and prosperity via plant transformation breakthroughs.
In 2021, participants in a University Industry Demonstration Partnership (UIDP) workshop stated that “plant transformation is in a crisis.” The lack of progress limits our understanding of how genes function and slows progress toward more resilient, better adapted and more productive crops. Two and half years later, a similar group of participants at a Plant and Animal Genome (PAG31) workshop, organized by USAID, provided an update on the state of plant transformation and what is being done.
As Gerald Schoenknecht of the National Science Foundation (NSF) explained, scientists still have limited understanding of the basics of why transformation works in some species and crop varieties, but completely fails in a closely related crop variety. And many of the available transformation protocols are challenging for most scientists to recreate in their labs while providing very low efficiency transformation.
In many ways, plant transformation remains at a crisis stage and is a severe bottleneck to realizing the full potential of advanced plant breeding, like genome editing (GEd), and is a severe brake on the bioeconomy (economic activity generated from biotechnology and biomanufacturing). Yet progress is being made, and workshop participants offered what they and their organizations are currently undertaking to improve plant transformation, with recommendations for future efforts.
What have you done for me lately? (A short list)
The Department of Energy (DOE) held a plant transformation workshop in September 2023; a full report of workshop findings is expected to be released in the Spring 2024. The workshop’s executive summary was released in December. It includes several plant transformation needs and opportunities, including a DOE research laboratory that performs long-term, cutting-edge transformation research on bioenergy crops; a network of DOE-funded plant transformation facilities; funding and training to develop a diverse workforce in plant transformation; and DOE competitive funding opportunities focused on plant transformation. Additionally, DOE released a new Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) topic in 2023, entitled “Delivery Technologies for Genetic Engineering Bioenergy Crops.” This topic is focused on commercializing innovative technologies to deliver nucleic acids or proteins to transform or edit bioenergy plants. While the work at DOE is focused on bioenergy crops, the technologies and strategies developed have implications and potential use for food and feed crops alike.
The NSF, in coordination with the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute for Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA), issued a Dear Colleagues Letter (DCL), a call for proposals, in September 2022 for both basic and applied research to improve plant transformation. Numerous proposals have been funded and the DCL remains open and available for proposals.
PlantGENE, funded by the NSF, has been delivering webinars, creating networks of scientists and troubleshooting protocols to make transformation more efficient, easier to use and accessible to scientists everywhere. As an example, a PlantGENE webinar focused on the unique challenges of African scientists hosted over 250 participants from 26 different countries. PlantGENE has also posted 36 “masterclass” videos on transformation and GEd, available to anyone at the PlantGENE website, among many other activities.
Professor Steven Runo at Kenyatta University in Nairobi is utilizing all the available tools to establish his lab as a leader in transformation and editing in Africa. An expert on the parasitic weed Striga, Runo is working with Corteva Agriscience on training African students, acquiring technology and building his lab. The current effort is focused on Striga-resistant sorghum through GEd. The longer-term goal is for African scientists to develop solutions for African agricultural productivity, quality and nutrition problems in African labs, thereby creating a vibrant bioeconomy on the continent.
In addition to the Striga effort, Corteva Agriscience is partnering on numerous other transformation and GEd initiatives: maize lethal necrosis virus, smaller stature tef, new approaches to hybrid crops and high-quality pearl millet flour, to name a few. Through sharing proprietary technology with the public sector around the world, Corteva has a proven record of leadership and has been a reliable ally for creating unique models for partnering and collaboration, which was called out as a clear need at the UIDP workshop in 2021.
Are we doing enough?
Progress is being made on plant transformation, but it remains a severe bottleneck to realizing the full potential of the bioeconomy. Not much has changed since the 2021 UIDP workshop. Recommendations from the PAG31 Workshop are similar to UIDP, and include:
- More resourcing to strengthen capacity and create excitement for young scientists.
- New models for partnering and coordination, including global partnerships, to get the most out of every dollar invested.
- Inclusive collaborations, to ensure that students and scientists from the “Global South” are both contributing to and benefiting from research.
- Greater private sector engagement, for inclusion of industry-developed technology, while helping the private sector thrive.
Urgency is needed. Innovation has historically and consistently driven ag-led growth, and ag-led growth has driven prosperity. More accessible and efficient plant transformation will improve food security, nutrition and prosperity through greater crop resilience and productivity. The bioeconomy will be underserved until plant transformation is efficient across plant species and crop varieties, and accessible to scientists around the world.