Scientists in UK, Bangladesh join hands in applying genome editing to develop a novel variety capable of withstanding the fearsome fungal disease – wheat blast
An international scientific collaboration is employing genome editing techniques to develop novel blast resistant wheat to save the second most important food crop in South Asia from a future devastation.
The move comes at a time when authorities in Bangladesh and in the Indian state of West Bengal are pursuing ‘wheat holiday’ policy – restricting wheat cultivation for a stipulated time in targeted areas – in a desperate attempt to curb the spread of deadly wheat blast disease.
This fungal disease has long been confined largely within the wheat growing regions of South America. But in 2016, it struck wheat fields of Bangladesh, in its first outbreak in Asia, causing colossal crop damage and sending alerts in bordering regions of India.
Scientists from United Kingdom and Bangladesh, involved in the process of developing blast resistant wheat through genome editing, told Dhaka Tribune that they have already identified the wheat gene where they are going to apply ‘molecular scissors’ and do the editing, thereby effectively driving away the fungi responsible for the blast in wheat fields.
“Once we’re done with the task in our laboratory (in UK), hopefully by the end of this year we’ll be sending the edited version to Bangladesh for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Agricultural University (BSMRAU) lab to do the necessary probing prior going for field test,” Prof Dr Sophien Kamoun, Group Leader, Sophien Kamoun Group at the UK’s The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) told this correspondent on Tuesday.
Tunisian-born Dr Sophien, a British Royal Society Fellow, made the science jargons easy for a layman’s understanding as he explained, “The fungi hold a key and wheat has a lock and every time fungi get favourable weather they apply the key to unlock wheat thereby feasting on the plant. What essentially we’ll do is fortify the lock system failing fungi’s key in opening it.”
Dr Sophien, a former plant pathology professor of Ohio State University, had joined hands with his TSL colleague Prof Nicholas J Talbot and other co-scientists in discovering the genome sequence of pathogen responsible for wheat blast when it first struck in Asia invading eight major wheat growing districts in Bangladesh in 2016.
Prof Dr Tofazzal Islam, who teaches biotechnology at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Agricultural University, Gazipur, joined hands with them and together they launched an open source wheat blast website, creating a forum for world’s scientific fraternity to look into a disease that the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) fearedwas a potential threat to South Asia’s future food security.
A recent CIMMYT study discouraged ‘wheat holiday’ policy as a holistic solution saying that the governments can pursue it on an interim and short-term basis. In the case of Bangladesh, the CIMMYT researchers assert that a ‘wheat holiday’ would increase the country’s reliance on imports, especially in the face of rapidly increasing wheat demand and urbanization. Bangladesh imports up to six million metric tons of wheat, five times more than it grows domestically, to meet its yearly demand.
The CIMMYT researchers urged the governments of India and Bangladesh, their counterparts in the region and international stakeholders to pursue long-term solutions, including developing a convenient diagnostic tool for wheat blast surveillance and a platform for open data and science to combat the fungus.
Dr Tofazzal, Prof Sophien and Prof Nicholas – all reckon that applying the latest genome editing tool CRISPR-CAS9 is the right way of doing the thing as far as removing the danger of fearsome wheat blast recurrences are concerned.
As an essential by-product of this project, an entire generation of young Bangladeshi academics, researchers, biologists and biotechnologists are getting exposed to the science of genome editing technology.
During their recent visit to Bangladesh (February 22-27), Prof Sophien and Prof Talbot, both fellows of the British Royal Society, visited wheat fields in Meherpur and imparted training to 55 young scientists at 13 universities and 10 research institutes on ‘Genome Editing for the Development of Novel Blast Resistant Wheat’ at BSMRAU.
Dr Naresh C Deb Barma, director general of Wheat and Maize Research Institute, told the Dhaka Tribune that his institute has been at the forefront of efforts to fight wheat blast and successfully developed Bari Gom 33 in 2017 that can withstand blast to a large extent. Dr Naresh, however, appreciated application of genome editing in pursuit of a novel blast resistant wheat variety.
Dr Tofazzal and Prof Sophien claimed that during their recent Meherpur visit, they found blast-hit wheat fields in this season as well.
The wheat blast genome editing project sourced 650,000 pounds of funding from Global Challenges Research Fund and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, both under the UK Research and Innovation, Britain’s largest public funder of non-medical bioscience.
Dr Tofazzal said the project also received another funding of Tk1.42 crore from Krishi Gobeshona Foundation (KGF), a Bangladesh government and World Bank-sponsored endowment trust fund.
What’s wheat blast?
Caused by a fungus -- Magnaporthe oryzae -- wheat blast is one of the most fearsome and intractable wheat diseases first discovered in Brazil in 1985. The blast directly strikes the ears of wheat and can shrivel and deform the grain in less than a week from the first symptoms are noticed, leaving farmers no time to act.
After February, 2016 outbreak of the disease in Bangladesh, scientists at ETH Zurich, a premier Swiss university of technology and science, came up with the findings in May that year that the disease came to Bangladesh from Brazil.
After analyzing genome sequences of the Brazilian and Bangladeshi strains of pathogens responsible for the disease, the study found strong similarities between the wheat blast strains.
The first ever attack of wheat blast in Bangladesh cost the country a financial loss of at least Tk 1,800 crore in terms of lost yield in 2016. The blast affected over one lakh hectares of wheat fields in the eight south and southwestern districts -- Jessore, Kushtia, Chuadanga, Meherpur, Jhenidah, Magura, Barisal and Bhola, causing up to 40 percent of crop damage, said Prof M Bahadur Meah, a preeminent plant pathologist who heads the national core committee of experts that the government had formed in the aftermath of the fungal disease.
What’s genome editing?
Genome editing, or genome editing with engineered nucleases (GEEN) is a type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted or replaced in the genome of a living organism using engineered nucleases, or ‘molecular scissors.’
CRISPR-Cas9 (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats-assisted system) is currently the simplest, most versatile and precise method of genetic manipulation and is therefore causing a buzz in the scientific world. The world's leading scientific journal, Science, selected CRISPR-Cas9 as 2015's 'Breakthrough of the Year.'
Genome is the full complement of genetic information that an individual organism inherits from its parents, especially the set of chromosomes and the genes they carry. This unique technology enables geneticists to edit parts of the genome by removing, silencing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence. It has also been used to cure blood disorders like thalassemia and certain cancers.