In a paper published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, USA (PNAS) Jan 24th, 2011, Dr. Magdy Mahfouz and the research team discuss a new way of genetically engineering plants to tolerate aggressive environments.
Regions where water quantity and quality are limiting, such as Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, could benefit by growing crops engineered for stress tolerance, which would not only address the problem of the nutritional needs of a growing population but could pave the way for surplus crops to be exported to GM-restrictive markets like Japan.
Dr. Mahfouz works at the Plant Stress Genomics Research Center at KAUST, directed by Professor Jian-Kang Zhu. This latest research is exactly in line with its founder’s expressed desire that KAUST should bring the benefits of novel research and the accompanying economic development to the region, with the promise of benefits worldwide.
Dr. Mahfouz has developed a “repair tool” (molecular scissors) made out of protein that does two things: it finds the exact place on the genome where it is to be cut using a genetic “postcode” and then deletes, adds or edits the gene with great accuracy and precision.
Dr. Mahfouz’s work has the potential for much broader applications including human health. This new technology could enhance the technique that may be used to substitute “good” genes for bad, or to cut out or silence the defective genes that cause disease.
Commenting on the research, KAUST Provost Stefan Catsicas saw the technology as a scientific breakthrough and, if the patent is eventually successful, having potentially promising revenues.
Dr. Nina Fedoroff, Professor of the Life Sciences at Penn State University, said the Mahfouz paper “shows the practicability of creating DNA-cutting enzymes tailored to cut a desired target sequence with very high specificity. This is an excellent step forward toward creating very specific genetic improvements in crop plants, while avoiding the potential risks many are concerned about with more conventional genetic modification strategies. Moreover, the paper gives the first evidence that this particular strategy will work in plants.” Professor Federoff is “delighted to see such cutting-edge contributions emerging from a university as young as KAUST!”
Dr. Bengt Norden, Professor of Physical Chemistry at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and former Chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry commented “that it is very pleasing to see that KAUST has now produced a breakthrough contribution in the field of life science. The work by Mahfouz has great impact and connects with early discoveries by Nobel Laureate Sir Aaron Klug that DNA-recognizing zinc finger proteins connected with a nuclease function may be exploited to create, highly selectively, double-strand breaks in DNA which initiates recombination-catalyzed insertion of an oligonucleotide sequence with surprisingly high efficacy. The possibility to take this DNA manipulation into clinic for “gene correction therapy” is thus no longer only science fiction.
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