UMD Receives Its First-Ever FFAR New Innovator Award and Additional USDA Funding to Enhance CRISPR Gene Editing Technologies

DNA illustration

Image Credit: Image courtesy of MaxPixel

January 14, 2019 Samantha Watters

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) just announced the first-ever UMD researcher to receive their New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research Award, designed to invest in the next generation of scientists committed to changing the way food is grown, processed, and distributed. Yiping Qi, Assistant Professor in Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, recently received over $1 million combined from FFAR and the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) to perfect CRISPR technology and spearhead a new line of research that is as unique as it is critical: the off-targeting effects and specificity of CRISPR gene editing tools.

With $560K from FFAR including matching funds from Syngenta, Qi has the freedom and ability to do work to improve CRISPR that is not being done elsewhere. Only 8 to 10 scientists from across the country are honored with this award each year, highlighting young innovative leaders in their fields. Qi is the first UMD recipient for this award.

“CRISPR technologies are revolutionizing biology, agriculture, and medicine. CRISPR can be thought of as molecular scissors that cuts DNA so that the piece related to a certain trait can be removed, replaced, or edited,” says Qi. CRISPR, as a new precision breeding technology, will enable scientists and breeders alike to do the same things done with traditional cross-breeding programs in a much shorter amount of time. This will help ensure global food and nutritional security and feed the world by accounting for new issues like disease resistance, pests, heat, drought, and other major concerns of a changing climate and growing population.

With the FFAR funding, Dr. Qi will develop plant genome editing systems with CRISPR-Cas12a to broaden targeting ranges and improve editing activity and specificity. If successful, these new gene editing tools will promote accelerated plant breeding for generating crops of high productivity and stress resistance under climate change and global warming. Earlier this year, Qi published papers in Genome Biology and Plant Biotechnology Journal looking at the specificity of CRISPR Cas9 and Cas12a in rice and maize, respectively. With this work, Qi’s team was the first to assess CRISPR Cas12a for off-targeting by whole genome sequencing in any higher organism.  

“FDA and USDA regulate safety of crops and food from many different aspects as they should, so having data to show that we can make very precise edits with basically no error is very important for the future of gene editing, and to have science-based data to make policies,” explains Qi. “In our previous work, we are finding that these tools are incredibly specific in rice and maize, both major crops for feeding people around the world. It is very encouraging.”

With an additional $500K in funding from USDA-NIFA, Qi will be similarly using the concept of whole genome sequencing to look at how efficient and specific base editing is. Base editors are CRISPR-derived technologies for making DNA changes down to a single base pair. A base pair is one A, T, C, or G and its corresponding counterpart in a sequence of DNA. Single base pair editing is highly specialized and specific, but can still result in significant changes in traits that are expressed.

“Breeding is all about harvesting useful mutations. We need mutation - it is a part of evolution. We are ensuring the safety and efficacy of these gene editing systems while also fostering new useful mutation in a controlled and very precise way, even targeting single base pairs,” explains Qi. “I am excited to use these new technologies as an opportunity to help people, advance science, and as a chance to educate people with a transparent understanding of gene editing.”