Genome editing is a relatively new technique that has enabled biologists to make targeted modifications to the genes of an organism. It has quickly become a mainstream method that is transforming biological research. It has great potential to aid in the development of new crop varieties. Genetic changes using genome editing can leave no trace of the modification and there is no need for “foreign” DNA as occurs with other forms of genetically modified organisms.
The Waite Research Institute sponsored an extremely well-attended workshop on genome editing on 14 April. Professor Michael Keller, Dean of the Waite, opened the workshop, which began with keynote speaker, Professor Caixia Gao from the Chinese Academy of Sciences describing the development of genome editing technologies for crop improvement. She showed how genes can be precisely targeted to make specific genetic changes. This was demonstrated by the creation of a variety of wheat that is resistant to powdery mildew disease. Essentially, small changes to six genes on three wheat chromosomes were analogous to changing the locks on the leaf surface, which prevented infection. The health of many crops could be secured by making them resistant to diseases using genome editing to make small genetic changes.
Professor Paul Thomas from the SA Genome Editing facility described a research service at The University of Adelaide that is being used to produce mouse models of human disease for medical research. This has made such transformations much more efficient. Genome editing can be completed and validated in six weeks, compared to the less reliable methods used in the past that took 18 months.
Dr Heidi Mitchell from the Federal Office of the Gene Technology Regulator outlined the challenges that new approaches like genome editing are posing for regulators. A review of the Gene Technology Act in 2016 will give an opportunity for greater clarity in the commercial use of genome editing.
For a more local perspective, three speakers from the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine described the use of genome editing in their research. Professor Dabing Zhang outlined his research on the reproductive biology of rice and highlighted how this could be applied to wheat and barley, and Dr Nicolai Borisjuk and PhD student Taj Arndell reported on the development and use of genome editing for research on the biology of wheat.