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Researchers have developed a new method for producing plants that carry genetic material from only one of their parents.

A reliable method for producing plants that carry genetic material from only one of their parents has been discovered by plant biologists at UC Davis. The technique, to be published March 25 in the journal Nature, could dramatically speed up the breeding of crop plants for desirable traits.

The discovery came out of a chance observation in the lab that could easily have been written off as an error.

“We were doing completely ‘blue skies’ research, and we discovered something that is immediately useful,” said Simon Chan, assistant professor of plant biology at UC Davis and co-author on the paper.

Like most organisms that reproduce through sex, plants have paired chromosomes, with each parent contributing one chromosome to each pair. Plants and animals with paired chromosomes are called diploid. Their eggs and sperm are haploid, containing only one chromosome from each pair.

Plant breeders want to produce plants that are homozygous — that carry the same trait on both chromosomes. When such plants are bred, they will pass the trait, such as pest resistance, fruit flavor or drought tolerance, to all of their offspring. But to achieve this, plants usually have to be inbred for several generations to make a plant that will “breed true.”

The idea of making a haploid plant with chromosomes from only one parent has been around for decades, Chan said. Haploid plants are immediately homozygous, because they contain only one version of every gene. This produces true-breeding lines instantly, cutting out generations of inbreeding.

Existing techniques to make haploid plants are complicated, require expensive tissue culture and finicky growing conditions for different varieties, and only work with some crop species or varieties. The new method discovered by Chan and postdoctoral scholar Ravi Maruthachalam should work in any plant and does not require tissue culture.

Ravi and Chan were studying a protein called CENH3 in the laboratory plant Arabidopsis thaliana. CENH3 belongs to a group of proteins called histones, which package DNA into chromosomes. Among the histones, CENH3 is found only in the centromere, the part of the chromosome that controls how it is passed to the next generation.

When cells divide, microscopic fibers spread from each end of the cell and attach at the centromeres, then pull the chromosomes apart into new cells. That makes CENH3 essential for life.

Ravi had prepared a modified version of CENH3 tagged with a fluorescent protein, and was trying to breed the genetically modified plants with regular Arabidopsis. According to theory, the cross should have produced offspring containing one mutant gene (from the mother) and one normal gene (from the father). Instead, he got only plants with the normal gene.

“At first we threw them away,” Chan said. Then it happened again.

Ravi, who has a master’s degree in plant breeding, looked at the plants again and realized that the offspring had only five chromosomes instead of 10, and all from the same parent

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