2Blades Foundation, Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and UC Berkeley to Collaborate on Advanced Gene Editing to Fight Plant Disease in Wheat

Evanston, IL (August 5, 2020) - The 2Blades Foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), and the University of California, Berkeley announced this week that they will collaborate on a program to advance gene editing tools to help fight plant disease, focusing on wheat.

FFAR has awarded $900,000 to UC Berkeley with matching funding from UC Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute, and with matching funding and in-kind support from The 2Blades Foundation, for a total investment of $3.2 million.

Outputs of the program will be advanced through The 2Blades Foundation’s wheat rusts consortium to ensure delivery of rust-resistant wheat. 2Blades, a non-profit organization, delivers genetic crop disease solutions to improve global food security.

“This is an important extension of 2Blades’ work on the development of durable rust resistances in wheat,” says 2Blades Chair Roger Freedman. “It builds on a long history of collaboration with UC Berkeley on the genetic control of crop disease. The current program will target the development of genome editing approaches to increase the efficiency and specificity with which we can build disease resistance, and it will also support computational and synthetic biology approaches to the development of new resistances,” he said.

The most effective, long-lasting, and environmentally sound way to defend against plant disease in wheat and other crops is through “stacking” multiple resistance genes. The use of genetic resistance is particularly important in developing countries where food security is most at risk, and where chemicals used to fight the pathogens are too often unaffordable or unavailable.

Wheat provides roughly 20 percent of calories and protein for human nutrition worldwide and is the third largest crop grown in the United States. The world wheat harvest is threatened by the recent emergence of new virulent forms of the fungal pathogen Puccinia graminis, which can cause pandemic disease with the rapid and complete destruction of infected crops.

The 2Blades Foundation, based in Evanston, Illinois, is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization dedicated to the discovery, advancement, and delivery of durable disease resistance in crops. 2Blades establishes and manages development programs addressing significant unsolved crop disease problems, working in collaboration with leading research institutions around the world and at the 2Blades Group in The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, UK. 2Blades manages a portfolio of specific traits and enabling technologies that it implements in its own programs and out-licenses for broad use.

FFAR Grant Addresses Wheat Crop Disease Using Gene Editing

Berkeley, CA (August 5, 2020) – Newly emerged pathogens can lead to disease epidemics that create severe crop losses and threaten food security. The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) awarded a $900,000 Seeding Solutions grant to the University of California, Berkeley to address devastating disease epidemics through advanced gene editing technologies. 2Blades Foundation and Innovative Genomics Institute provided matching funds, for a total $3.2 million investment.

Currently, breeding plants for disease resistance is the most effective and ecologically sustainable way to control plant epidemics. To achieve this, scientists use traditional crop breeding to introduce, or stack, multiple resistance genes – though this is a time-consuming approach. Additionally, the effectiveness of stacking resistance genes in economically vital crops like wheat are often short lived as the pathogens are constantly evolving to overcome resistance.

“A virulent wheat pathogen would not only harm farmers, but can also result in food supply shortages, threatening food security,” says FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey. “Thus, scientists need a new approach to breeding wheat crops with greater disease resistance.”

Pathogens have special proteins that can cause plant disease. University of California, Berkeley researchers, led by Dr. Brian Staskawicz and Dr. Ksenia Krasileva, are using gene editing technology to stack resistance genes in the wheat crops that specifically recognize the pathogen’s proteins. By recognizing the pathogen’s proteins, the plant can fight the pathogen, even if the pathogen mutates.

In addition to using already cloned genes, this grant is also addressing the ability of combined computational and synthetic biology approaches to develop novel resistance genes. Outputs of the program will be advanced through The 2Blades Foundation’s wheat rusts consortium to ensure delivery of rust-resistant wheat.

“We are excited to employ gene editing in wheat, as it will allow us to reduce farm inputs and produce more sustainable wheat yields — more important than ever in the face of climate change,” says Staskawicz.

Ultimately, this project is accelerating the development of improved resistant wheat varieties and getting them to farmers. The resulting wheat varieties will have greater yields and require fewer chemical inputs. Improving the quality of wheat ensures the crop is robust enough to grow worldwide.

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization originally established by bipartisan Congressional support in the 2014 Farm Bill, builds unique partnerships to support innovative and actionable science addressing today's food and agriculture challenges. FFAR leverages public and private resources to increase the scientific and technological research, innovation, and partnerships critical to enhancing sustainable production of nutritious food for a growing global population. The FFAR Board of Directors is chaired by Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum, Ph.D., and includes ex officio representation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Science Foundation.