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University of Maryland Scientists Develop CRISPR-Act 3.0, a New CRISPR Technology for Multiplex Gene Activation in Plants

CRISPR-Act 3.0 could significantly increase crop yields and plant diversity worldwide and help fight against global hunger and climate change

Clinical laboratory professionals and pathologists who read Dark Daily are highly aware of CRISPR gene editing technology. We’ve covered the topic in multiple ebriefings over many years. But how many know there’s a version of CRISPR specifically designed for editing and activating plant genes?

Scientists at the University of Maryland (UMD) developed a new version of CRISPRa (CRISPR Activation) for plants which they claim has four to six times the activation capacity of currently available CRISPRa systems and can activate up to seven genes at once. They call their new and improved CRISPRa technology “CRISPR-Act 3.0.”

According to a paper published in the journal Nature Plants, titled, “CRISPR-Act3.0 for Highly Efficient Multiplexed Gene Activation in Plants,” the UMD researchers developed “a highly robust CRISPRa system working in rice, Arabidopsis (rockcress), and tomato, CRISPR-Act 3.0, through systematically exploring different effector recruitment strategies and various transcription activators based on deactivated Streptococcus pyogenes Cas9 (dSpCas9).

Yiping Qi, PhD

“While my lab has produced systems for simultaneous gene editing [multiplexed editing] before, editing is mostly about generating loss of function to improve the crop,” said Yiping Qi, PhD (above), one of the authors of the UMD study, in a new release. “But if you think about it,” he added, “that strategy is finite, because there aren’t endless genes that you can turn off and actually still gain something valuable. Logically, it is a very limited way to engineer and breed better traits, whereas the plant may have already evolved to have different pathways, defense mechanisms, and traits that just need a boost.” (Photo copyright: University of Maryland.)

CRISPR-Act 3.0 Increases Function of Multiple Genes Simultaneously

The UMD researchers successfully applied CRISPR-Act 3.0 technology to activate many types of genes in plants, including the ability to expedite the breeding process via faster flowering. They hope that activating genes in plants to improve functionality will result in better plants and crops.

“Through activation, you can really uplift pathways or enhance existing capacity, even achieve a novel function. Instead of shutting things down, you can take advantage of the functionality already there in the genome and enhance what you know is useful,” said Yiping Qi, PhD, associate professor, Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture at the University of Maryland, in a UMD new release.

The scientists also noted that there may be other advantages to this type of multiplexed activation of genes.

“Having a much more streamlined process for multiplexed activation can provide significant breakthroughs. For example, we look forward to using this technology to screen the genome more effectively and efficiently for genes that can help in the fight against climate change and global hunger,” Qi added. “We can design, tailor, and track gene activation with this new system on a larger scale to screen for genes of importance, and that will be very enabling for discovery and translational science in plants.” 

The researchers hope this technology can have a major impact on the efficiency of crop and food production. 

“This type of technology helps increase crop yield and sustainably feed a growing population in a changing world,” Qi said. “I am very pleased to continue to expand the impacts of CRISPR technologies.”

Feeding the World’s Hungry with CRISPR

CRISPR is a robust tool used for editing genomes that typically operates as “molecular scissors” to cut DNA. CRISPR-Act 3.0, however, uses deactivated CRISPR-Cas9 which can only bind and not cut. This allows the system to work on the activation of proteins for designated genes of interest by binding to certain segments of DNA. The UMD researchers believe there is significant potential for expanding the multiplexed activation further, which could alter and improve genome engineering. 

“People always talk about how individuals have potential if you can nurture and promote their natural talents,” Qi said in the UMD news release. “This technology is exciting to me because we are promoting the same thing in plants—how can you promote their potential to help plants do more with their natural capabilities? That is what multiplexed gene activation can do, and it gives us so many new opportunities for crop breeding and enhancement.”

CRISPR is being developed and enhanced in many research settings, and knowledge of how to best use the gene editing technology is rapidly advancing. Though more research on CRISPR-Act 3.0 is needed to ensure its reliability, it’s exciting to consider the potential of gene activation for massively increasing crop yield worldwide.

Not to mention how new CRISPR technologies continue to drive innovations in clinical laboratory diagnostics and precision medicine treatments. 

JP Schlingman

Related Information:

UMD Associate Professor Introduces New CRISPR 3.0 System for Highly Efficient Gene Activation in Plants

CRISPR–Act3.0 for Highly Efficient Multiplexed Gene Activation in Plants

Another Milestone for CRISPR-Cas9 Technology: First Trial Data for Treatment Delivered Intravenously

New Understanding of CRISPR-Cas9-Guided Base Editors Could Trigger Development of Gene-Editing Tools Targeting Diseases and New Types of Clinical Laboratory Tests