Editing in English is difficult enough, but try to wrap your head around how hard turning the perfect phrase in plant genes might be. Researchers at Oregon State University are hoping to better their ability to do just that over the next five years, thanks to a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
Researchers may soon be able to more closely monitor complex processes as genetically engineered cells develop into modified plants. New state-of-the-art image analysis methods are teaching computers to recognize different cell types and plant structures. Scientists will work with cottonwood trees, whose genome has already been successfully sequenced.
Scientists hope to identify which genes either encourage or inhibit genetic modification with this project. “The research will shed new light on the mechanisms of genetic engineering so we can improve its efficacy and lower its costs,” said Steve Strauss, project leader from the OSU College of Forestry.
“Many crop species, and many of the valuable varieties within them, remain extremely difficult to genetically engineer,” he continued. “This greatly limits the ability of this method to be used for plant breeding and scientific research. There can be blockages at any of the several steps. Regeneration of modified cells into plants is usually the most difficult to overcome. The work will also produce insights into how to effectively educate, both in Oregon and elsewhere, about the complex issues of crop genetic engineering.”
Education modules about genetic engineering with an emphasis on agriculture will be developed for rural middle and high school students in tandem with research activities. Educators hope to better understand how students approach the scientific concepts underlying genetic engineering methods and to be able to provide hands-on laboratory experiences for underserved communities.
By Matthew Hunt