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Department of Plant Sciences

Genetic engineering of super-recombining plants to accelerate crop improvement

Collaborative research between the groups of Ian Henderson at the University of Cambridge, and Raphael Mercier at the Institute Jean-Pierre Bourgin in Versailles, has been published in PNAS reporting a new means to massively increase recombination in plant genomes, with important implications for agriculture.

During sexual reproduction plants and animals produce gametes via a specialised cell division called meiosis. Meiosis is unique, as chromosomes pair up during its first phase and undergo reciprocal exchange, called crossover.

Crossover recombination creates genetic diversity within populations, and importantly, it is vital for crop breeding; where it remains a major tool to combine useful traits. However, despite the importance of crossovers for breeding, its levels are typically low, with 1-2 crossovers forming per chromosome, irrespective of physical chromosome size.

In the published work super-recombining Arabidopsis (a model plant species) were genetically engineered, via boosting a major pro-crossover pathway (using additional copies of the HEI10 E3-ligase gene), and simultaneously removing a major anti-recombination pathway (using mutations in RECQ4A and RECQ4B helicase genes). This strategy led to a massive crossover elevation, mainly in the gene-rich regions of the chromosomes.

The authors are now attempting to translate their results into the context of crop genomes, where they hope to achieve similar increases in crossover numbers. This would have the potential to accelerate breeding of the next generation of crops required to meet the challenges of food security and climate change.

Serra H, Lambing C, Griffin CH, Topp SD, Nageswaran DC, Underwood CJ, Ziolkowski PA, Séguéla-Arnaud M, Fernandes J, Mercier R, Henderson IR. (2018) Massive crossover elevation via combination of HEI10 and recq4a recq4b during Arabidopsis meiosis. PNAS.