By Frank Giles
The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) has established itself as a leader in new technological frontiers like artificial intelligence (AI). In fact, the school has the 15th most powerful computer in the world. The HiPerGator, as the computer is called, will assist in AI development and on many other technological fronts.
Another frontier where UF/IFAS is doubling down is the use of gene editing and CRISPR to breed better and more resilient plant varieties. These technologies can transform plants to be resistant to diseases, have improved nutritional values, enhanced capability to withstand environmental conditions and more.
To better organize and prioritize these research efforts, the university launched the Crop Transformation Center last year. The center was given a $2 million boost by University of Florida President Ben Sasse. Other support has come from the Florida Department of Citrus and the Citrus Research and Development Foundation.
The $2 million will cover two years of research and facility upgrades. In that time, UF/IFAS staff will build out the infrastructure needed for the center, including greenhouses, growth chambers, supplies and personnel. Simultaneous to building facilities and hiring staff, scientists are already conducting research.
Charlie Messina, the director of the new center, brings both academic and private industry experience to the job. Prior to joining UF/IFAS, he was employed by Corteva where he worked with the company’s gene-editing and crop-improvement groups.
“After many years in the private sector, I wanted to get back to working with students. In January 2022, I was appointed professor in the UF/IFAS horticultural department as part of the university’s overall AI initiative,” Messina says. “Then I was approached about leading the Crop Transformation Center and leveraging my experience in industry and academia to think differently about how we can help Florida growers deal with real problems on their farms. How can we bring the best of both worlds — the industry side of focusing on solving problems combined with all the talent and intelligent machinery we have at UF/IFAS? That is what we are hoping to do through the center.”
The Crop Transformation Center’s first big target will be HLB. It will organize and enhance research aimed at developing new citrus varieties resistant or tolerant to the disease.
“We have some of the best scientists in the world working on citrus here at UF/IFAS,” Messina says. “The more that I talk to them, the more impressed I am. My job (as director) is to work them to help growers and get those solutions in their hands more quickly.”
Messina describes the center’s methodology as an end-to-end approach. At one end, you start with the grower’s problem. At the other end, you start working on the science of the solution, regulatory clearances and educating the public about why the solution is needed. He says all this work needs to be happening in unison, not in silos, which often is the case in academia.
“We need to provide the right solution to the right problem, rather than to have an academic idea and let’s see if it works and is useful,” he says. “Here we are targeting a very specific problem or goal and have everyone on the team working to get the solution to the grower. This is what makes the Crop Transformation Center unique.”
“The center will allow us to much more effectively employ biotechnology tools to increase the speed and accuracy of our plant breeding,” says Scott Angle, University of Florida provost. “We already have the nation’s leading university plant-breeding program, and the center will turbocharge those efforts. We’ll start with citrus because that is a commodity in crisis.”
While the Crop Transformation Center is new, citrus plant breeding utilizing advanced technological approaches is well underway. That work stretches from traditional breeding to CRISPR and transgenic modification to impart resistance to HLB.
One such project is the work being conducted by Nian Wang, a molecular geneticist with UF/IFAS, who is utilizing CRISPR technology to develop HLB-resistant citrus varieties. Wang has created several gene edits that appear to impart resistance to the disease. Those selections are headed to groves for field trials soon.
“The center will provide a broader framework for what Dr. Wang is working on and make sure it flows more smoothly toward helping solve the grower’s problem,” Messina says. “That is the case with all the scientists working on their projects to transform citrus plants.
“When we look at this transformation, we want to use the varieties that the farmers are already familiar with. We want to be as close to the tree the growers know how to grow as possible. For example, we can take an early Valencia, do the gene editing and make the plant have a better immune system (against HLB). And we can assist this research through its development and field trials while also working on templates to help move things through the regulatory process more smoothly.”
Research by Zhonglin Mou, UF/IFAS professor of microbiology and cell science, is also being supported by the center. His work is developing transgenic HLB-tolerant varieties. He has modified five Hamlin varieties and one Duncan grapefruit variety. These lines were planted in field trials starting in 2019. While they have become infected with HLB, so far they show low symptoms of the disease. Fruit quality data will be collected over the next couple of seasons. Requests to deregulate and release these lines are underway with an estimated timeframe for approval of two-plus years.
WORKING WITH REGULATORS
Eric Triplett, UF/IFAS chair of microbiology and cell science, is playing a key role in developing a process to move these gene-edited and modified citrus plants through the regulatory process.
“We want to be proactive and have started working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other regulators to develop the right presentation (of data and safety) to move these genes through the approval process as quickly as possible,” Messina says. “There are well established procedures for other crops, but we are developing the best approach for these transformations in citrus.”
With the center up and running, Messina says the push now is to move these technologies from an academic exercise to something growers can plant in the grove.
“The sooner we test these trees in field conditions, the better. That’s happening with transgenic trees now and with Dr. Wang’s CRISPR trees soon. Then, if these trees perform like we hope they will, the next steps will be achieving the approval from regulators and getting the technology in commercial trees.”
Messina says that could take another few years, but the framework is in place to make it happen more quickly now through the center’s efforts.
OTHER CROPS COMING
While citrus is the first target, the Crop Transformation Center will be working on other important crops in Florida, including blueberries, strawberries, broccoli, sugarcane and more.