CORVALLIS, Ore. — With a $4 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation, scientists at Oregon State University will develop new approaches to identifying genes that control the ability of a plant to be genetically engineered.
Researchers will create new methods to image and analyze plants undergoing the process of genetic engineering. Their goal is to identify the genes that promote or retard the process.
Genetic engineering generally requires that DNA be inserted into cells. By modifying DNA, researchers can generate organisms with desired characteristics.
“Many crop species, and many of the valuable varieties within them, remain extremely difficult to genetically engineer,” said Steve Strauss, OSU distinguished professor in the College of Forestry and project leader. “This greatly limits the ability of this method to be used for plant breeding and scientific research. There can be blockages at any of the several steps. Regeneration of modified cells into plants is usually the most difficult to overcome.”
In collaboration with Fuxin Li in the OSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, the investigators will develop state-of-the-art image analysis methods to visualize the genetic engineering process. This will include the use of machine vision where the computer learns how to recognize key plant organs and cell types. That would enable researchers to monitor and quantify the complex process through which a genetically engineered cell turns into a new plant.
The research will focus on the cottonwood tree, a species whose DNA sequences have been previously determined by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Oregon State researchers will collaborate with Wellington Muchero at the University of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory on genetic mapping and gene identification.
OSU social scientist Troy Hall and other members of the project team will work with Jay Well of the Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences (SMILE) program at Oregon State to develop education modules around genetic engineering in agriculture for middle- and high-school students. They will first analyze how youth approach the ideas and scientific concepts behind genetic engineering and then pilot the modules with underserved students in rural communities throughout Oregon.
This work will benefit from collaborations with the biotechnology industry, including Monsanto and Simplot, which will provide plant materials and methods of genetic analysis for student laboratory exercises.
“The research will shed new light on the mechanisms of genetic engineering so we can improve its efficacy and lower its costs,” said Strauss. “The work will also produce insights into how to effectively educate, both in Oregon and elsewhere, about the complex issues of crop genetic engineering.”