Genetic engineering systems are critical tools to advance crop genomics research and related crop improvement efforts in the United States and worldwide. These tools have been limited, however, by the high complexity and low efficiency of current crop transformation processes.

To help overcome these limitations, the National Science Foundation has awarded $2.9 million to Iowa State University and University of Wisconsin scientists to develop the next generation of crop transformation tools and the crop geneticists who’ll put them to work.

The project is led by Kan Wang, professor of agronomy and the Global Professorship in Biotechnology at Iowa State, and Heidi Kaeppler, associate professor of agronomy at UW-Madison. Kaeppler, the principal investigator on the grant, is the faculty lead for transformation and gene editing technology research and development at the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center.

“This is an important investment in building capacity for the future of food production to feed billions more people in the coming decades,” said Wang. “I am very excited that NSF is supporting this research to help advance our understanding of the complex biological, chemical and physical factors involved in plant transformation processes, and to continue progress in biological engineering technologies.”

The goals of the four-year NSF-funded project will be to develop more efficient genetic engineering systems that can be used to improve corn, soybeans and other crops. The researchers will seek to create enhanced, open-source crop engineering tools and biological materials necessary to enable public crop genome research.

The award will also support an international workshop led by Wang and Kaeppler to train crop genomics scientists in specific transformation principles and techniques, as well as the science behind the technologies.

“The workshop will also cover important topics, including transgene stewardship protocols and best practices to help scientists continue to engage in the responsible conduct of science as the technology continues to change and advance,” said Wang.

“The sciences of plant transformation and genome editing are enabling fundamental insights into plant biology,” she said. “They are revolutionizing commercial agriculture. Unfortunately, for most crops, the processes involved remain arduous and rely on technologies that have significant bottlenecks, even after more than 30 years of technological advances.”

“We still have much work to do to optimize and simplify processes,” she said. “For example, robotic techniques can be developed to improve efficiencies of introducing new genes into plants, and we can take greater advantage of naturally occurring Agrobacterium strains to facilitate delivery of DNA and proteins into plant cells.”

Kaeppler is an internationally known expert in crop tissue culture, transformation and genomics. Areas of focus for her research include biological and genetic mechanisms of plant bioengineering processes, development and optimization of efficient tissue culture, engineering and editing systems, and improvement of crops for agronomic, nutritional and bioenergy-related traits.

Wang is widely recognized as an international leader in the field of plant biotechnology, especially in plant genetic transformation and genome editing. She was the inaugural director of ISU’s Plant Transformation Facility, established in 1995 as one of the first public facilities to provide crop genetic transformation services for academic researchers globally. Currently she serves as co-director for the Crop Bioengineering Center, a cohort of faculty whose research focuses on using genome-editing technology for crop improvement.

Wang and Kaeppler have worked together before. They received a $4.3 million NSF grant in 2000, with Wang as the lead scientist, to establish a public maize transformation service pipeline. “Twenty years later, we are collaborating again”, said Wang. “With Heidi in the lead this time around, we hope we can push public crop transformation one step further.”

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