AGNR Researcher Wins UMD Invention of the Year in Life Sciences, Among Three AGNR Nominees, for CRISPR Gene Editing Tools in Plants

Yiping Qi takes home the honor, with all three Life Sciences nominees hailing from AGNR

Yiping Qi and Yingxiao Zhang, Plant Science and Landscape Architecture

Image Credit: UM Ventures

April 30, 2021 Samantha Watters

President Darryll Pines of the University of Maryland (UMD) announced the winners of the UMD Invention of the Year awards last week during his inauguration celebrations, and all three nominees in the Life Sciences category came from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR). This year, Yiping Qi, associate professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, and his postdoctoral researcher, Yingxiao Zhang, took home the honor of UMD Invention of the Year in Life Sciences for their innovations to CRISPR-Cas12a genome editing technologies in plants that can help improve crop production and feed a growing global population. Qi and Zhang were one of nine nominees across the university in three categories (Physical Sciences, Information Sciences, and Life Sciences). The two other nominees in Life Sciences this year were also both from AGNR: Utpal Pal (identification of vaccine targets against tick-borne illness), professor in the Department of Veterinary Medicine, and Daniel Nelson and his team (development of anti-acne and skin infection-fighting enzymes), associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Medicine with the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research (IBBR). Learn more about these exciting inventions below.

Winner: A New CRISPR Editing Strategy for Plant Genomes

Yiping Qi
Yiping Qi, associate professor in Plant Science & Landscape Architecture

“It is a huge encouragement for my team to keep innovating in the plant genome editing field,” says Qi. “We certainly hope these new technologies will be soon applied in agriculture for improved breeding and climate-resilient crops.”

Highlighted in a recent publication in Nature Communications, Yiping Qi and his team continue to enhance genome editing and engineering in plants, with the ultimate goal of improving the efficiency of food production. His recent work contributes six novel variants of CRISPR-Cas12a that have never before been proven in plants, testing them first in rice as a major global crop. In addition to allowing for a much broader scope of possible gene editing targets, these new tools can edit many different sites in the genome at once (known as multiplexed editing), or even repress gene expression to tone down undesirable traits. The new tools feature a broader targeting range, low temperature tolerance, and high efficiency and specificity that greatly expands their application across a wide variety of plant species and crops. These patent-pending tools widen the scope of what CRISPR-Cas12a can do in plants, which can help to produce food more effectively to fight hunger. 

“This type of technology helps increase crop yield and sustainably feed a growing population in a changing world,” says Qi. “I am very pleased to continue to expand the impacts of CRISPR technologies.”

Identification of Vaccine Targets Against Tick-borne Illness 

Utpal Pal
Utpal Pal, professor in Veterinary Medicine

Utpal Pal leads the Tick Immunity project, uncovering the secrets of tick immune responses that could help to develop treatments and vaccines, as well as a recent grant to develop a novel Lyme disease vaccine. Ticks transmit many human and animal illnesses each year, including the pathogen that causes Lyme disease, which has now been reported in more than 80 countries, with an estimated 476,000 annual recent cases in the U.S. alone. Despite substantial efforts, however, vaccines against most tick-borne diseases are still unavailable. Ticks transmit most pathogens into their host’s skin while they are feeding. Therefore, this invention identifies a set of novel tick antigens or vaccine targets which could potentially be developed as anti-tick bite vaccines. The successful development of vaccines against tick bites would thwart the transmission of pathogens, thereby reducing the incidence of tick-borne infections as a whole. 

“This is an exciting innovation disclosure that has the potential to translate some basic scientific discoveries into public health improvement,” says Pal. “These studies, which address unique aspects of tick biology and pathogen transmission, are greatly supported by a number of talented PhD students and postdoctoral trainees in our laboratory.”

Development of Anti-Acne and Skin Infection-Fighting Enzymes

Daniel Nelson
Daniel Nelson, associate professor in Veterinary Medicine

Daniel Nelson and his colleagues Sara Beth Linden and Niels Vander Elst with IBBR study proteins known as enzymes that are derived from bacterial viruses (or bacteriophages) and break down bacteria. These enzymes can therefore be used broadly to fight infection. Over 80% of adolescents and a growing number of adults are affected by acne, a common bacterial skin infection. The enzymes that Nelson and his team have developed over the years are called endolysins, and they have the power to kill bacteria on contact, even in the absence of the virus they originated from. With this invention, Nelson is targeting the main bacteria that causes acne as a potential therapeutic tool to be included in face wash and other topical treatments.

“Endolysins represent an exciting new technology with the potential to offer a potent and safe treatment for acne, with minimal side effects and low risk of inducing drug resistance,” says Nelson.

This work isolating viral proteins to fight acne is partially funded by the Maryland Innovation Initiative (MII).


Inventions are selected by a panel of UMD personnel and industry experts and overseen by UM Ventures. To learn more about the other winning inventions, check out this story in Maryland Today

This video was produced by UM Ventures.