Applications submitted for new field trials with genome-edited maize

In early January, VIB submitted applications to conduct 3 field trials with genome-edited maize. Observations in the greenhouse showed that the modified plants are more resistant to climate stress or easier to digest. In collaboration with the Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO), VIB would like to confirm their findings in real cultivation conditions. 

Genetic alterations made with molecular precision 

To make plants more resilient to current climate changes, diseases, and to improve their interaction with the environment, you need to know the mechanisms that make the plant grow. At the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology, research is being conducted into the molecular processes that drive plant growth and development. When scientists understand those processes, targeted changes can be made to try to adjust plant growth.

Thanks to the new gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9, the plant's genetic material can be modified with high precision. Important is to examine the effect of the genetic changes on the life cycle of the plant. In doing so, both normal and stress conditions are simulated in the greenhouse while plant development is monitored. While the findings from the greenhouse represent a plant’s growth capabilities, a field trial provides a more complete picture of the resilience of the modified plants when exposed to actual weather conditions.

Climate resistant maize for more sustainable agriculture

One of the consequences of climate change is global warming, which is causing a higher frequency of sustained heatwaves, periods of drought, and more extreme weather patterns. Prof. Hilde Nelissen's research group aims to make maize resistant to prolonged drought. When plants experience drought, the hereditary material - the DNA - is folded into a compact form, causing growth to be paused. Prof. Nelissen and her team found that turning off a structural component that helps the folding of DNA leads to less compact and therefore more active DNA. As a result, maize plants show improved growth in the greenhouse when they experience drought. A field trial must shed light on whether this genetic modification also benefits growth and yield under varying weather conditions (field trial number 1). 

Prolonged periods of heat, increased exposure to UV rays and polluting metals, cause DNA damage to plants. In response to DNA damage, the plant slows the cell cycle - the process by which plant cells expand and subsequently divide. Since plant growth is a direct result of growing cells, chronic DNA stress leads to smaller plants and reduced yield. The team of Prof. Lieven De Veylder wants to test in their field trial if the lack of a negative regulator of the cell cycle makes maize plants more resistant to DNA damage related to environmental stress (field trial number 2). Greenhouse experiments already showed that the modified maize grew significantly better compared to unmodified plants when exposed to environmental stresses that induce DNA damage.  

Better digestible maize 

In addition to developing climate-resistant crops, better digestible plants and plant-based products can also contribute to a more sustainable society. An improved feed conversion after all means that pigs and cattle can suffice with less feed. And when we use plants to produce bioethanol, and biodegradable detergents and plastics, this lowers our dependence on fossil materials such as petroleum. For both types of applications, it is necessary that the sugars can be extracted from the plant cell wall in the most efficient manner. The cell wall is a complex structure whose main components are lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose. The sugars are derived from the cellulose and hemicellulose, but the lignin – which can be compared to glue to keep the cellulose and hemicellulose fibers together - complicates the extraction. Among other things, the lab led by Prof. Wout Boerjan is investigating whether they can generate plants with a reduced lignin content in their cell wall to make the sugars more accessible. After successful results in poplar, Prof. Boerjan will apply the same strategy to obtain more digestible maize plants. The planned field trial (field trial number 3) will investigate whether the plants with lower amounts of lignin also perform well in the field and whether the lowering coincides with negative effects such as higher sensitivity to strong winds. 

All three field trials will be conducted on grounds of and together with ILVO with which VIB has a strategic research collaboration.