Utrecht scientists discover fast-forward plant improvement technology

Shortcut to breed better non-GMO crops

Utrecht scientists demonstrates a new, non-GMO technology to develop new crops at a fraction of the costs of traditional breeding. By engineering the genes of bacteria that surround the plants the scientists obtained the same outcome as adjusting genes from the plant itself. They publish their findings in New Phytologist.

Planten en bacteriën: partners voor een duurzame oogst
Plants and bacteria: partners for sustainable yields (image: Mohammed Ravanbakhsh)

Breeding better  crops  is  a  cornerstone  of  global  food  security. However, breeding improved cultivars is a tedious process that can take years to decades. In a recent breakthrough, a team of Utrecht University scientists have discovered a shortcut to breed better crops by genetically engineering the microorganisms naturally living in and around plants.

Bacterial genes

Plants always carry a wealth of bacteria inside them. To date, plant breeding has focused on the genes carried in the plant itself, but paid little attention to those encoded in plant-associated bacteria. In this work, the research team around Mohammad Ravanbakhsh from Utrecht University demonstrates that the same plant phenotype can be reached by changing either the plant genes or changing the bacterial genes.

The team for example investigated whether they could increase the plant nutritional value. “We therefore compared the manipulation of altered the ethylene synthesis gene, ETO1, in the plant itself, with the manipulation of the associated microbial gene. Both mutations yielded a similar  plant  phenotype  with  increased  ethylene production  and  higher  shoot  micronutrient  concentrations”, says Ravanbakhsh. This way they validated the concept, but for applications in agriculture they can reach a similar effect by natural evolution of the bacteria.

This work is a major breakthrough.

“This work is a major breakthrough”, says last author Alexandre Jousset from Utrecht University. “It has far reaching implications as it shows that microbiome engineering may become a fast-forward way to increase plant characteristics at a fraction of the costs associated with traditional breeding.”
The research team has now initiated a spin-off, Blossom Microbial Technologies (Blomitec), to translate these breakthroughs into commercial applications, supporting the development of stress-and disease-resistant crops.


Targeted plant hologenome editing for plant trait enhancement. New Phytologist, 9 August 2020. Mohammadhossein Ravanbakhsh*, George A. Kowalchuk* en Alexandre Jousset*. doi.org/10.1111/nph.16867

* Affiliated with Utrecht University.