Scientists have genetically engineered plant mitochondrial DNA for the first time. This advancement could enable a more secure food supply for the future.

Low mitochondrial diversity in plants leaves whole species vulnerable to diseases. If all plants are genetically similar, very few individuals will have resistance to certain diseases, which will give a low survival rate. Being able to edit mitochondrial DNA could provide a mechanism to increase genetic diversity.

The researchers aimed to delete the CMS gene, which causes male infertility in plants. This gene is found in plant mitochondrion, so is unable to be removed by editing genes in the nucleus. Infertile plants pose huge problems for farmers, as they harm genetic diversity and mean they must pay agricultural companies every year for new seeds.

The scientists used a technique called mitoTALENs, which has successfully edited mitochondrial genes in animal cells. mitoTALENs uses a single protein to cut the DNA at the CMS gene and delete it. The researchers were able to create four new lines of rice and three new lines of rapeseed that were completely fertile.

Plant mitochondrial genomes are larger and more complex than those found in animals. However, the genetic pathways in plant mitochondria are not well understood. Editing plant mitochondria genes could therefore provide scientists with a mechanism to improve genetic diversity in crops.

This advancement could lead to crops that are more resistant to both diseases and environmental pressures, which will ensure a more secure food supply for the future.

More on these topics