UMD Gets First-Ever ‘New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research Award’

News Release, University of Maryland

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research for the first time has awarded a UMD researcher the foundation’s “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.

University of Maryland Assistant Professor Yiping Qi, department of plant science and landscape architecture, was one of only nine U.S. early-career researchers who in late December were given the foundation’s 2018 award. With support from the foundation and matching funds from Syngenta, Qi’s new award totals $560,000.

According to the foundation, this funding will support his research “to develop CRISPR-Cas12a based plant genome editing systems with broadened targeting range and improved 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.”

Qi recently also got a $500,000 grant from the Biotechnology Risk Assessment Grant Awards Program (BRAG) from USDA-NIFA for a combined funding of more than $1 million for his work to perfect CRISPR technology and its application for creating better food crops.

“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,” said Qi.

Qi and others say CRISPR, as a new precision breeding technology, will enable scientists and breeders alike to do the same things once done with traditional cross-breeding programs, but in a much shorter amount of time. The goal is to 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.

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. Qi and his team were 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,” explained 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 the $500,000 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 editings systems while also fostering new useful mutation in a controlled and very precise way, even targeting single base pairs,” said 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.”