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Planned mutations can increase crop options

The most common food crops benefited from natural mutations and modern technology could aid this process

There are more than 300,000 plant species in existence, but just three — rice, wheat and corn — account for almost all of the plant matter consumed by humans.

In no small part that’s because natural mutations arose making these crops the easiest to harvest. But with gene editing technology like CRISPR, researchers suggest we won’t have to wait for Mother Nature to help us domesticate plants.

Scientists at the University of Copenhagen, in a review published recently in the journal Trends in Plant Science described ways in which the technique could improve the farmability of minor crops like quinoa.

“In theory, you can now take those traits that have been selected for over thousands of years of crop domestication — such as reduced bitterness and those that facilitate easy harvest — and induce those mutations in plants that have never been cultivated,” said Michael Palmgren, a botanist and lead author of the paper.

The approach has already been successful in accelerating domestication of undervalued crops using less precise gene editing methods. For example, researchers used chemical mutagenesis to induce random mutations in weeping rice grass, an Australian wild relative of domestic rice, to make it more likely to hold on to its seeds after ripening. And in wild field cress, a type of weedy grass, scientists silenced genes with RNA interference involved with fatty acid synthesis, resulting in improved seed oil quality.

“With gene editing, we can create ‘biologically inspired organisms’ in that we don’t want to improve nature, we want to benefit from what nature has already created,” Palmgren said.

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