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Study seeks to address global food security challenges

Duke Kunshan Professor Eunyu Kim has begun a three-year study of plant molecular biology in the hope of producing more resilient crops that could help to address global food security challenges.

The research focuses on DNA strands called transposons, which are important in plant evolution but can also cause mutations. Her aim is to expand understanding of them and their potential use in naturally enhancing crop resilience without genetic modification.

Professor Eunyu Kim (right) with research assistant Mengwei Cheng (left)

“The insights gained from this research have the potential to fundamentally transform our understanding of transposon biology and significantly impact sustainable crop breeding practices,” said Kim, an assistant professor of biology at Duke Kunshan.

“Despite the considerable efforts of plant breeders and geneticists to enhance crop production and quality, the commercialization of new crop varieties often encounters challenges due to stringent regulations surrounding genetically modified crops. Our proposal is to shift crop breeding practices towards a more natural evolutionary process, free from artificial genetic modifications,” she added.

The movement of transposons within a genome during plant development is a major source of genetic variability, which is crucial to evolution. However, this variability is not always positive, and in many cases causes mutations that can be fatal to the plant. Genetically modifying plants is one way to create more resilient crops, but it can often cause a large movement of transposons leading to crop failure.

Kim will work on the project from her laboratory, the ‘Climate Resilient Crop Design Lab’, with research assistant Mengwei Cheng, sophomore Xinyu Hu, and a post-doctoral fellow who will join the team in July. They will track transposon movement using a “ground-breaking” biological research system, with the aim of understanding how the host genome regulates their movement. The system will track transposon movement at single-cell resolution across a tens of thousands of protein-coding genes. Their results, due in three years when the research is completed, will help scientists to control transposons, enabling them to both avoid fatal mutations and create natural crops, free from genetic modification, that are more resilient and sustainable, according to Kim.

“Contrary to the common belief that transposons primarily cause gene mutations, we hypothesize that they can also act as gene activators from a distance, forming specific chromatin contacts. By harnessing their ability to proliferate within genomes, we can potentially induce new genetic variations naturally, thus offering an eco-friendly alternative to conventional genetic manipulation and addressing concerns related to genetically modified organisms,” she added.

The research project, titled “Deciphering the Mystery of ‘Jumping Genes’: Towards Sustainable Crop Production,” is funded with two sets of grants: 1,000,000 RMB from the Kunshan Science and Technology Bureau as part of the Kunshan Shuangchuang Talent Award for Innovative Leading Talent; and 800,000 RMB from the National Natural Science Foundation of China. The funds will be spent primarily on laboratory supplies, including chemicals and reagents, equipment usage, and sequencing analysis.

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