Selective breeding of plants can help give them new beneficial peoperties, but trees have a painfully long reproductive cycle. Researchers at the University of Georgia have used CRISPR gene-editing to make poplar trees flower within months instead of a decade.
Plant breeding is all about cultivating, boosting and creating desirable traits in plants. That can include increasing size, appearance, nutritional value, yield, resistance to pests, and tolerance of heat, cold, salinity or drought.
The target of the scientists was the poplar, a tree that has a long childhood period and can take seven to 10 years before it begins to flower. This is a long time to wait and see if the cross-breed turned out to be a success.
The researchers used CRISPR to knock out a gene called CENTRORADIALIS (CEN), which is known for repressing flower initiation in young poplars.
“Previous methods for inducing early flowers in poplars was inconsistent and labor intensive,” said C. J. Tsai, co-author of the study. “But using CRISPR to edit a flowering repressor gene, we are able to compress the flowering time from more than seven years to three to four months, and the yearlong floral organ development period down to a few days.”
This breakthrough, the team says, could help scientists breed new traits into poplars and other trees exceptionally faster than usual. As an example, the researchers tested the system by making another gene edit that reduces the cotton-like seed attachments that form in spring, which can be a major trigger for people with allergies.
“This provides a molecular basis for developing hairless seeds, which could reduce allergen spread in urban areas or across working forests,” said Tsai.
The research was published in the journal New Phytologist.