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BSAS/WPSA: Plant Genomes Can Help Solve Global Problems

18 April 2013

UK - A leading plant scientist has outlined to a meeting of animal scientists how advanced plant breeding techniques have the potential to solve some of the world's most pressing problems - including the prevention and treatment of human and farm animal diseases and more sustainable food production.

Plant biologists have tended to follow rather than lead scientists in other fields, according to Professor Maurice Moloney, Director and CEO of Rothamsted Research in the UK.

He was presenting the Hammond Memorial Lecture at the joint meeting of the British Society of Animal Production (BSAS) and UK branch of the World's Poultry Science Association (WPSA) at the University of Nottingham yesterday, 17 April.

Professor Moloney said that, after 'removing' the genes for photosynthesis, 60 per cent of the plant genome is common with that of the humans - a greater degree of commonality than many would expect.

While there was, rightly, huge global interest in the publication of the human genome in 2001, that of a little plant had been published the previous year, he said. It was for Arabidopsis thaliana, which is widely used in research. While its genome is relatively small, it was almost as complex as an animal's.

Plant scientists aimed to make plant genomes more 'animal', he said, citing a number of examples of success.

Among the first was the re-creation using biotechnology in plants to produce hirudin, a chemical secreted by leeches to prevent blood clotting for medical use.

Plants have also been used as sources of therapeutic antibodies and an insulin precursor. The required gene was inserted into Arabidopsis plant and then successfully grown in the safflower.

The plant-derived insulin was found to match commercially available human insulin products in in-vivo, in-vitro and clinical trials and offers the potential to provide an inexpensive yet effective therapy for diabetes sufferers across the world.

The technology has also been applied successfully to provide treatments for rare diseases that are not a high priority for the large pharmaceutical companies, on the grounds that the cost of development of new drugs may not be recouped if there are few patients. One such example is an enzyme "grown" in carrots and used to treat Gaucher's disease.

There are plenty of other opportunities for plants to contribute to diseases prevention in animals, said Professor Moloney. He cited as an example the development of virus-like particles in plants, which have promise in the development of inexpensive yet effective vaccines for poultry, for example, against infectious bursal disease.

Finally, in response to questions from the audience, Professor Moloney indicated that his field of work can also be applied in the production of new feed ingredients; a high-protein seed and high-quality forage that grows year-round in temperate climates could contribute to feeding the growing human population with more affordable and sustainable animal proteins.

He added that a yeast that produces the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA, is being used in salmon feeds in Chile, reducing the need for fish oil in the farmed fish diets, thus helping to conserve wild fish stocks.

TheMeatSite News Desk

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