Natalie Kaiser’s love for plants started as a child growing up around her parents’ organic greenhouse business in upstate New York. She did her undergrad studies in plant science with dreams of starting a career in farm management; but after taking a few courses in genetics, she found her true passion in plant breeding.
A PhD candidate at Michigan State University (MSU), Natalie specializes in potatoes – in particular, looking at which genes make certain potatoes naturally resistant to a troublesome potato pest known as the Colorado potato beetle. This is an all-too familiar pest for home gardeners and commercial potato growers alike.
By identifying the genes that cause certain potatoes to be resistant to this pest, plant breeders can then select the potato plants that have those genes, and provide growers with a potato that can thrive pest-free with the use of less—or even no—insecticides.
In addition to insect resistance, others in the MSU potato breeding and genetics team are using plant breeding to improve characteristics ranging from yield to nutritional properties. Innovature talked to Natalie to learn more.
First of all, in basic terms, how would define plant breeding?
Plant breeding is really an extension of plant domestication and plant domestication is one of the most important milestones, I think personally in human civilization. Selecting plants that have traits that are beneficial for human cultivation and consumption is the essence of plant domestication. And then modern plant breeding is just using our tools, either genetic tools or technological tools to help us do that in a more efficient way. Basically, all of the crops that we enjoy consuming and that we find in our grocery stores today are a function of modern plant breeding.
How does this apply to the foods we eat today?
First of all, it’s important to note that the plants that end up being our food in the grocery store or in a farmer’s market, have come from released varieties that have gone through an extensive testing process. The process of conventional plant breeding today takes a very long time. So it’s many years that a plant is being examined by the plant breeders and geneticists to make sure that the process of creating these new genetic combinations does not deliver any unintended consequences.
In modern plant breeding, we have the benefit of having in many crops, genetic markers, so that we can screen the plants by looking at them and performing different tests to examine their chemical component, but also by examining their DNA and seeing what rearrangements we’ve made in the process of making new combinations.
What does the future look like for plant breeding?
Right now is a very exciting time to be in plant breeding. And there’s two main tools that I’m excited about. One of them, is whole genome sequencing, which is that we have now the ability in many crops to use technology that’s fairly cheap and lets us look at all of the DNA base pairs in a single plant. Instead of just looking at tiny little regions that are linked to traits of interest, we can look at the whole genome and start to understand how genes interact with each other.
The second technology that I’m excited about is genome editing. And this, coupled with whole genome sequencing gives us the ability to do really precise genetic engineering. This allows to make very detailed changes while reducing unintended consequences – allowing us to deliver a product that feeds more people more efficiently.
Is using gene editing for plant breeding applications safe?
Anytime we are producing a food product for society, principles of food safety apply. Using genome editing is just another tool in the toolbox of plant breeders; it doesn’t replace plant breeding. For example, if we’re talking about potatoes, maybe we have a variety that we know we love, like a Yukon Gold, but you just wish that it had a couple more desirable traits – for instance, greater disease resistance. Where genome editing helps us is that we can take an existing variety that we like and just make a couple of tweaks, but we would still apply all of the rigorous quality and food safety measures that makes up the framework of plant breeding.
When you observe bees buzzing around in your garden, you are witnessing cross-pollination in action. The bees are making crosses and the resulting seeds grow and develop naturally. What plant breeders are doing is just applying a critical eye to select new combinations that result from controlled cross-pollinations.
Plant breeders are here to make sure that new products have been screened and tested and evaluated over years. Whereas, in nature, new genetic combinations are happening all the time. One of the really important functions of plant breeding is to be a vetting process for the public.