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Engineered Plant Minichromosomes: A Bottom-Up Success?

Agriculture | Jun, 2023

Rising population, accelerating climatic changes resulting in extreme temperatures and adverse weather events, unpredictable rainfall, degrading quality of soil, etc. are contributing to poor and low crop yields. Besides, limited arable land, lack of fresh water, and rapidly increasing use of farmlands for industrialization are decreasing the crop output. With the rise of global population, the demand for food is increasing significantly, which creates a need for identifying innovative ways to boost the crop productivity. As per estimates, farmers will have to increase agriculture produce by at least 23% to meet the rise in demand by 50-70%, owing to both population expansion and changing dietary habits, to meet the needs of consumers.

Advancements in agriculture and genetic engineering have led to the development of plant artificial chromosome technology, which can help meet the global demands by bringing a new generation of improved crops. One of the most exciting advents in agriculture technology comes in a very tiny package, which the geneticists can leverage to add hundreds of traits to a plant, from increasing drought tolerance to increasing nitrogen use. Use of minichromosomal technology can help to reduce the usage of artificial pesticides and weedicides, which tend to affect the quality of crops and soil.

Minichromosome Technology: AgTech Solution to Strengthen Food Security

Minichromosomes hold very little genetic material but a lot of information. The engineered minichromosomes contain a transgene and selectable marker as well the components required for the maintenance of an organism. Due to their separation from host chromosomes, the engineered minichromosomes are helpful in the development of transgenic plants. Transgenes on minichromosomes can be introduced without running the danger of insertion into a native gene, and they can be transmitted across lines without causing associated genes to migrate. Telemere shorting in combination site-specific recombination has proven to be an easy method to produce minichromosomes. Thus, this kind of technology can help plant acquire feature that can enable the production of superior quality agri-commodities and help them grow healthy. Also, the minichromosomal technology can help add traits that can enhance the nutritional absorption.

Inducting Bt toxin genes in crops can increase insect resistance while employing herbicide resistant genes can enable efficient weed management. Thus, genetically modified crops can minimise the use of pesticides, which are harmful to both humans and the environment. For instance, consumers can leave the slices of a genetically engineered apple out for snacking as they would not become brown when exposed to air. Genetically modified potatoes that are resistant to potato blight can drastically improve the environmental effect of potato cultivation by reducing the need for chemical fungicides by up to 90%. Additionally, these potatoes will have less bruising and black spots, better storage qualities, and less of a chemical that is produced when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures that may be carcinogenic.

By altering a gene that promotes plant development, farmers demonstrated that they can consistently enhance maize yields by up to 10%, regardless of how favourable the growing environment is. More recent genetically modified maize types have been created with better ethanol output, higher lysine content, and tolerance to drought stress. They can withstand drought, herbicides, and insect attack.

DuPont created genetically altered soybeans that lessen the creation of trans fats, extend the shelf life of soybean oil, and provide a generally better cooking oil. The GMO soybean oil has more of the heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and zero gramss of trans fat. They can tolerate herbicides and are resistant to insects.

How is Minichromosome Technology Better than Conventional Crop Genetic Engineering?

Plant artificial chromosomes (PACs) are engineered chromosomes that are small and have no genes of their own, which enables them to express foreign genes. In comparison to traditional crop genetic engineering techniques, the minichromosome technology is a promising strategy in the field of genetic engineering. The application of minichromosome technology differs in the following ways:

  • Enhanced Stability

Minichromosomes, which may be inserted into plant cells, are compact, self-replicating, and stable genetic components. These are independent biological entities, in contrast to conventional genetic engineering, which involves inserting transgenes into the host genome. They are less likely to be silenced or rearranged due to their independence from the host genome, which leads to more stable and predictable gene expression.

  • Large gene capacity

Minichromosomes have the potential to carry larger DNA fragments compared to traditional genetic engineering methods. This expanded gene capacity allows for the simultaneous introduction of multiple genes or entire gene pathways, enabling the engineering of complex traits or stacked traits in a single minichromosome construct.

  • Mitigation of gene flow

The possibility of gene flow from genetically modified crops to wild or non-target plants is a risk connected with traditional agricultural genetic engineering. Since they are kept distinct from the host genome, minichromosomes provide a remedy for this issue. This trait improves containment and environmental safety by decreasing the chance of gene transmission to other plant species.

  • Regulatory Benefits

Regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be difficult and time-consuming. The regulatory process could be made simpler by minichromosome technology since the inserted genetic material is kept apart from the host genome. A more expedited examination and approval procedure for crop varieties created utilising minichromosome technology may be made possible by this special designation.

The minichromosome technology is still a young and developing subject. Although it has a lot of potential, further study and development are required to fully comprehend and maximise its potential uses in agricultural genetic engineering.

Major Minichromosome Technology Market Drivers

  • Rising demand for Agri-commodities

By 2050, the global population is expected to reach around 9.7 billion. Relying on existing agricultural methods or increasing yields by regulating natural resources would not be environment friendly. Besides, desertification, flooding, salinification, etc. are causing loss of arable lands. Hence, geneticists are leveraging new technologies such as genetic engineering to grow superior crops. Genetically modified crops have a changed genetic makeup, which was impossible to produce through traditional agriculture methods. Since minichromosomes only contain a little amount of genetic material, this approach can be used to modify plants to be more pest- or drought-resistant without affecting the host's normal growth. Thus, minichromosome technology enables genetic engineers to develop crops that depend less on toxic chemicals by using less fertilisers, insecticides, and fungicides. Additionally, it enables them to bio-fortify plants and improve their nutritional value. Hence, rapid adoption of minichromosome technology for increasing plant and crop production is expected to drive their market growth in coming years. 

  • Increasing Government Expenditure for Genomics Projects

With enhanced focus on strengthening food security and reducing reliance on imports of food items, governments across the world are investing in several biotechnologies to enhance their crop productivity and meet the consumers’ demands. In September 2022, the Biden Administration passed an executive order to increase the fundings for research initiatives towards genetically engineered organisms. In addition, the 2022 CHIPS and Science Act aims to accelerate the innovation in a number of technologies, including genetic engineering. Moreover, rising government regulations to reduce the application of pesticides in soils, crop lands, and marine plants are expected to drive the adoption of minichormosome technology.

  • Advances in Genetic Engineering Supports Growth

The creation of a novel breeding method termed genome editing is one of the most recent developments in the field of plant breeding. The long-term objective of plant breeders has been to accurately change crop genomes at specific locations in the genome, and genome editing technologies have emerged as potent tools to do this. The remarkable characteristics of the genome-editing technology have led to its widespread adoption in crop breeding in recent years. These features include the precise modification of the target genome, the absence of foreign DNA in the genome-edited plants, and the faster and less expensive method of genome modification. Besides, the development of CRISPR gene-edited crops in research labs to target traits for sustainable, climate-resilient agriculture has accelerated this process. Therefore, the potential for genetic engineered organisms to support sustainable agriculture is enormous.

Way Ahead

The innovative plant artificial chromosome technology, which allows the control of many genes for the next generation of genetic engineering, have a larger potential to enable genetic engineering. Engineering crops with numerous genes should be achievable utilising techniques like gene assembly, genome editing, gene targeting, and chromosomal delivery systems, which could allow for increased crop production while using fewer natural resources. The development of technology and the demand for increased efficiency have made it possible to gather precise data, which has led to a wealth of new understanding. In 2022, the investment in farm technology witnessed a growth of more than 40%. Now that farmers have improved control over crop quality, pest management, and even the optimisation of their current practises to increase revenue due to innovations, they can now leave less to speculations.

According to TechSci Research report on “Minichromosomal Technology In Agriculture Market - Global Industry Size, Share, Trends, Opportunity and Forecast, 2016-2026, Segmented By Trait Incorporated (Drought Tolerance, Improved Nitrogen Use, Herbicide Tolerance, Pest Resistance, Others), By Crop Type (Arabidopsis, Maize, Others), By End User (Agriculture & Biotechnology Companies, Academic & Research Institutes, Others), By Region”, the global minichromosomal technology is projected to register growth at a formidable rate. The growth can be attributed to the rising biotechnological processes in agriculture and advancing agriculture sector. Besides, emergence of new AgTech startups and increasing initiatives to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides in crops are expected to fuel the growth of minichromosomal technology in the coming years. 

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