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Gene editing shows promise for improving the chocolate tree

Date: 16.5.2018 

Use of the powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 could help to breed cacao trees that exhibit desirable traits such as enhanced resistance to diseases, according to Penn State plant scientists. 
Kredit: Désiré Pokou.

The cacao tree, which grows in tropical regions, produces the cocoa beans that are the raw material of chocolate. Reliable productivity from cacao plants is essential to the multibillion-dollar chocolate industry, the economies of producing countries and the livelihoods of millions of smallholder cacao farmers.

But each year, several plant diseases severely limit global production, with 20-30 percent of cocoa pods destroyed preharvest, noted lead author Andrew Fister, postdoctoral scholar in plant science, College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State.

Previous work in cacao identified a gene, known as TcNPR3, that suppresses the plant's disease response. The researchers hypothesized that using CRISPR-Cas9 to knock out this gene would result in enhanced disease resistance.

To test their hypothesis, they used Agrobacterium - a plant pathogen modified to remove its ability to cause disease - to introduce CRISPR-Cas9 components into detached cacao leaves. Subsequent analysis of treated tissue found deletions in 27 percent of TcNPR3 copies.

When infected with Phytophthora tropicalis, a naturally occurring pathogen of cacao and other plants, the treated leaves showed greater resistance to the disease. The results suggested that the mutation of only a fraction of the copies of the targeted gene may be sufficient to trigger downstream processes, resulting in systemic disease resistance in the plant.

The researchers also created CRISPR gene-edited cacao embryos, which they will grow into mature trees to test the effectiveness of this approach at a whole-plant level.

 


 

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