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Genetically “curing” an infertile crop plant into fertile again

Plant geneticists from the University of Tokyo are onto creating novel plant lines that seem to be “more polite” than they already are.1,2,3 However, their technique does not involve implanting a “social” gene of some sort. Rather, scientists would edit plant mitochondrial DNA. In that way, they can, for instance, make a plant bow down even more due to the heavier seeds it would yield. Thus, this could mean a more secured food supply. More interestingly, this genetic modification was accordingly the first time ever to be done on a plant mitochondrial DNA.

Mitochondrial DNA

Mitochondria are one of the three organelles containing nuclear material. The nucleus and the chloroplast are the other two. Scientists have already done successful modifications of the nuclear DNA since1970s. Then, another team of researchers pioneered modification of chloroplast DNA in 1988. However, in terms of mitochondrial DNA, researchers had only found success on animals but not on plants. The first successful animal mitochondrial DNA modification happened in 2008. Then recently, a team of researchers from the University of Tokyo apparently showed success in doing it as well on a plant mitochondrial DNA. In this case, this was the first time.

Basically, mitochondrial DNA is the genetic material in the mitochondrion that carries code for the manufacturing of RNAs and proteins essential to the various functions of the said organelle. Since a mitochondrion has its own genetic material it is described as a semi-autonomous, self-reproducing organelle.

First plant mitochondrial DNA modification

Researchers from the University of Tokyo devised genetic tools that can edit plant mitochondrial DNA. Accordingly, they came up with four new lines of rice and three new lines of rapeseed (canola) using their technique. Between plant and animal mitochondrial genes, those in plants are larger and more complex. Prof. Arimura explicated that plant mitochondrial genes are more complicated in a way that some mitochondria have duplicated genes whereas others lack them. Thus, manipulating plant mitochondrial genome proved more challenging. Their collaboration with other researchers, particularly from Tohoku University and Tamagawa University, led them to their use of the technique mitoTALENs. With it, they were able to manipulate mitochondrial genes in plants.1 To learn their methods in detail you may read their published work here.

The plant mitochondria rapidly moving around the cell (Arabidopsis leaf epidermal cell). Artificially made to glow green to show their actual speed. Video by Shin-ichi Arimura CC-BY

What plant mitochondrial DNA modification can do

After the successful editing of plant mitochondrial DNA, what could be the next big thing? Associate Professor Shin-ichi Arimura, leader of the research team, was enthusiastic indeed about their accomplishment. With a jest, he said, “We knew we were successful when we saw that the rice plant was more polite — it had a deep bow” – implying that a fertile rice plant would bend more due to the heavier weight of the seeds it would yield.1,3

A weak genetic diversity in crops could impose a threat to species survival through time. As a domino effect, that is bad news to our food supply.  Thus, their team hope to use their technique by providing solutions that could significantly enhance genetic diversity in crops, and therefore improve plant species survival and yield. Arimura further said, “We still have a big risk now because there are so few plant mitochondrial genomes used in the world.”1 Furthermore, he mentioned of using their technique for the purpose of adding the much needed mitochondrial DNA diversity among plants.

Cytoplasmic male sterility

plant mitochondrial DNA modification technique
Plant mitochondrial DNA modification technique to enhance crop yield and genetic diversity

Cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) refers to the male sterility in plants by not producing functional pollen, anthers, or male gametes. It occurs naturally although rarely and probably involve certain nuclear and mitochondrial interactions.4 Nonetheless, others believe that CMS is caused primarily by plant mitochondrial genes.1  In particular, the presence of CMS gene leads to this condition in plants. Thus, removing the CMS gene could convert the plant into becoming fertile again. This is just a start but they are already optimistic that with their technique they could improve crop lines and consequently secure food supply.

plant mitochondrial DNA modification
A mitochondrial gene that causes cytoplasmic male infertility was deleted using a mitoTALENs technique. Infertile rice (right) stands straight, but fertile rice (left) bends under the weight of heavy seeds. Image by Tomohiko Kazama, CC-BY

— written by Maria Victoria Gonzaga


1 University of Tokyo. (2019, July 8). Researchers can finally modify plant mitochondrial DNA: Tool could ensure genetic diversity of crops. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from [Link]

2 Arimura, S. -i., Yamamoto, J., Aida, G. P., Nakazono, M., & Tsutsumi, N. (2004). Frequent fusion and fission of plant mitochondria with unequal nucleoid distribution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences101(20), 7805–7808. [Link]

3 Researchers can finally modify plant mitochondrial DNA | The University of Tokyo. (2019). Retrieved from The University of Tokyo website: [Link]

4 Campo, C. (1999). Biology of Brassica coenospecies. Amsterdam New York: Elsevier. pp.186-89.

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