Meiogenix and Cambridge University receive a BBSRC grant to unlock plant genetic diversity via epigenetic modifications

April 25, 2016
Meiogenix and the group lead by Ian Henderson at the University of Cambridge have received a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBRSC), UK. This grant funds research that aims at elucidating the epigenetic mechanisms that control meiotic recombination. The final goal is to apply these discoveries in crops such as wheat to recombine their natural genetic diversity and to accelerate plant breeding.

Breeding of natural genetic variation remains a vital tool for crop improvement and it relies on the efficiency of meiotic recombination to generate novel segregants. One common limitation is the skewed distribution of meiotic recombination events along the chromosomes, including crop species such as wheat, barley, maize and tomatoes. Meiogenix develops a plant breeding technology (SpiX) that can target and increase the frequency of meiotic recombination in regions of low recombination (“cold regions”). Epigenetic controls seem to have an important role in defining these cold regions and the work of Ian Henderson’s lab has elucidated part of these controls in the model plant A.thaliana. The BBRSC grant will help translating these results into wheat, the most important food crop.

“We have seen exciting changes in recombination caused by alterations to plant chromatin. This grant will allow us to work with Meiogenix and Dr. Sourdille to translate our knowledge into the complex wheat genome. Specifically, we will modify wheat chromatin in order to control recombination and accelerate breeding.” says Ian Henderson, Principal Investigator at University of Cambridge.

The group led by Pierre Sourdille at the INRA in Clermont-Ferrand will provide the expertise and facilities to apply these discoveries in wheat. Meiogenix partners already with Sourdille’s lab where the targeted recombination technology SpiX is being applied.

“It is known that the relationship between the genetic and physical distances varies a lot along the chromosomes and between species. This is the consequence of the large variation in the distribution of the recombination initiation events, being genetically and epigenetically controlled. Recent advances that uncover the regulatory role of the chromatin structure are very promising to accelerate the generation of natural variants in plants.” says Alain Nicolas, Co-founder & CSO of Meiogenix. “The timing to call for a breakthrough effort in crops is well suited and the partners of this collaboration are optimal in terms of expertise and complementarity” further emphasize Alain Nicolas.

One of the biggest challenges of humankind is feeding a population that is set to reach 9 billion people by 2050. Yields of maize, rice, wheat and soybean all need to increase by 60% and classical breeding has already attained its limits. In the recent years, a series of plant breeding technologies were developed (e.g. Cas9, Reverse Breeding, SpiX) that can accelerate plant breeding and facilitate the development of improved crops. The technologies developed by Meiogenix and by the University of Cambridge will have an impact for plant breeders and contribute to the valorization of the biodiversity.

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