(Oct. 30, 2017) -- Garry Sunter, chair of the UTSA Department of Biology, has received an award worth up to $1 million over four years to develop a technology that enlists insects to deliver genetic therapies that improve the health of vulnerable, mature plants. Sunter is part of a Pennsylvania State University-led team supporting the Defense Advance Research Project Agency’s Insect Allies program.
“Our goal is to develop a rapid response to various conditions that can impact plant productivity, such as drought, disease and environmental stress,” said Sunter. “Many of the traditional responses used to protect plants are either time-intensive or destructive. To make a difference for mature plants facing rapidly emerging threats, we have to come up with a defense that works quickly.”
Different plants already have a range of genes that give them natural resistance to harsh conditions and disease. Sunter is working to transfer relevant genes into susceptible plants to keep them from succumbing to stresses that would normally kill them.
“This process already exists, but it’s too slow,” said Sunter. “It doesn’t help in a crisis. We’re looking to aid mature plants by expressing protective traits within a single growing season.”
In pursuit of that goal, Sunter is working with a colony of whiteflies, an insect that is known to researchers for its efficiency in spreading disease among plants. However, in this case, instead of permitting the flies to infect plants with something that might kill them, the team is working to engineer the flies with genes that could save plants and help prevent a possible food shortage. All of the work is being carried out in contained facilities.
“Our goal is to take a DNA sequence that encodes a therapeutic protein and put it into the flies to deliver to at-risk plants,” said Sunter. “The plant would then express that beneficial trait, which could be disease resistance or drought tolerance.”
If the system is successful, it could potentially be adapted to benefit plants in other ways, Sunter explained. “For instance, it might be possible to enable plants with low salt tolerance to grow in salty conditions,” he said.
Sunter is collaborating with Penn State University, The University of Florida and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on the project.
“Food security, and economic stability based on food security, is becoming a bigger issue because of our increasing global population,” he said. “The more that we invest in innovation, the better off we’ll be in the future.”
UTSA is ranked among the nation’s top four young universities, according to Times Higher Education.
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