Adjunct Professor Sarah Hake and Associate Researcher George Chuck have been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to employ CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to potentially domesticate alternative food crop sources.
Although there are thousands of edible plants in the world, the agricultural industry relies on only a few major grasses—such as rice, wheat, and maize—to provide most of the planet’s caloric needs. This extreme dependence on a select group of plant species limits the world’s capacity to secure a robust food supply in the face of climate change, endemic pathogens, or other unexpected events that result in crop failure.
Underutilized crops may be an answer to this issue, but many of these plants have yet to be bred as food crops. One such crop—often known as an “orphan” crop—is the annual plant teff (Eragostris teff), as well as its perennial relative, lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula). While lovegrass is mostly used for erosion control and foraging purposes, it has been used as a food source during times of famine. Lovegrass is especially attractive as a potential food crop because of its remarkable ability to produce seeds in the absence of fertilization, a process known as apomixis.
Before these plants can be adopted as serious alternative crops in the United States, however, their agronomic traits must be improved so that they can be grown at a much greater scale. The research funded by the NSF Plant Genome Program seeks to do this using new CRISPR-Cas9 techniques to target several gene families known to be important for domestication in other crop plants. This research seeks to jump-start the domestication process in teff and lovegrass in order to bypass the thousands of years of breeding that are normally required to create new crop plants.