Open Competition - Biotechnology (October 2000)
Genetic Engineering Tools For Plant Breeders
Develop a genetic engineering "tool kit" that can be used to produce a series of plants, each with a specific genetic control element, so that standard plant breeding techniques can be used to rapidly and systematically screen and select desired traits in crops.
Sponsor: Mendel Biotechnology21375 Cabot Road
Hayward, CA 94545
Traditional methods of breeding plants are too slow to ensure that the U.S. agriculture industry will remain competitive. Consumers and processors alike demand products with superior appearance, taste, nutrition, and processing characteristics. To help satisfy these demands, Mendel Biotechnology and Seminis Vegetable Seeds Inc. (Oxnard, Calif.) will jointly develop a genetic engineering "tool kit" that can be used to produce a series of plants, each of which has a newly introduced genetic control element. Different elements of the "tool kit" will then be joined by standard plant breeding to rapidly and systematically screen and select desired traits in tomatoes and other crops. In the three-year project, one set of plants will be created to produce certain proteins that control plant characteristics, and a second set to contain specific regulatory sequences ("promoters") that induce genes to make the proteins under certain conditions. In the progeny from a cross of such plants, a protein will be expressed under the control of the promoter just as if each plant had been directly engineered with the specific gene-promoter combination. To make the parent plants, the companies will isolate a comprehensive set of 1,800 protein genes from a mustard plant that are expected to control gene and trait expression in tomato, and ultimately other plants as well. Technical challenges will include identifying proteins that can improve a trait. The companies will establish a population of tomato plants with the desired protein genes and also clone at least 10 promoters and insert them into the genetic material of a second set of plants. As a test, combinations of "tool-kit" plants will be crossed and the offspring screened for increased lycopene content (a red pigment with nutritional benefits), high soluble solids (a benefit in processing), and resistance to fungal disease. The ambitious nature of the project is reflected by the number of genes targeted -- tens of thousands of transformed plants must be generated to obtain a final library of 1,800 viable transgenic plants. ATP support is needed because neither company can develop the tool kit on its own, and private funding sources view the research as too uncertain. If successfully developed, the new technology will make it easier to enhance desirable traits in produce and reduce both pesticide use and production costs. The commercial value of the improved traits in tomatos alone could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and the technology could be applied to a wide range of other agricultural crops, such as corn, soybeans and wheat.