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Manipulating the control of the meiotic recombination to improve plant-breeding outcomes in crop species

Primary Supervisor: Dr Eugenio Sanchez-Moran, School of Biosciences

Secondary supervisor: Kim Osman (Research Fellow) & Lindsey Leach

PhD project title: Manipulating the control of the meiotic recombination to improve plant-breeding outcomes in crop species

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:

The aim of this project is to utilise new insights and technologies to manipulate meiotic recombination in crop species. Acquiring the knowledge and skills needed for this project will make an important contribution to ensuring Food Security over forthcoming years, which remains one of the key challenges confronting society.

The development and introduction of new elite varieties of crops remains time consuming, often taking 10 years or more. A key reason is that crop breeding methods remain primarily reliant on meiotic recombination to generate genetic variation through the formation of genetic crossovers (COs) that produces new combinations of genes. Herein lies one of the major limitations confronted by plant breeders if they are to develop strategies for faster crop improvement. Extensive evidence amassed over many years has revealed that in higher eukaryotes, including crop species, CO frequency per chromosome at each meiosis is generally low (1-3 COs per chromosome) and importantly, is non-uniform along chromosomes. As a result, in some species notably cereals such as wheat and barley, extensive regions, up to 70% of the physical length, of individual chromosomes rarely recombine. Hence, the challenge is to determine the factors that regulate CO frequency and localization in crops and to devise strategies to overcome this problem. Recently, a strong link has been observed between CO distribution and DNA and histone methylation patterns. However, the exact relationship between recombination and chromatin methylation is not understood.

These projects are going to use different approaches in order to attempt the successful manipulation of crossover frequency and location: analysis of different meiotic mutant alleles (TILING and CRISPR) to understand how different protein domains and modification sites changes could alter the control of meiotic recombination, the variation of the chromatin environment by chemical manipulation and the use of Genome Targeting of DNA Double Strand Breaks using CRISPR/Cas9 technologies.

We aim to develop methods to alter protein and chromatin patterns during meiosis and gain understanding of which aspects of chromatin are responsible for shaping CO landscapes in crops. Bringing COs to recombination-deficient sites will allow producing new allelic combinations of the large fraction of plant genes that are located in pericentromeric regions. The methodology will be based in the use of genetic mutations and enzyme inhibitors.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Sustainable Agriculture and Food: Plant and Crop Science

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

Molecular genetics: cloning, genome editing, CRISPR/Cas9, PCR, plant transformation, genotyping, electrophoresis, in silico analysis, RT-PCR, etc Cytogenetics: meiotic stages (fixation and preparation), DNA staining, In situ Hybridization, Immunolocalisation of proteins, light microscopy, epifluorescence microscopy, super-resolution microscopy and image acquisition and analysis Research and Communication: analysis of results, writing and presentation skills (critical analysis, bibliographic research, lab group discussions and weekly meetings, conferences in UK and Europe, being part of an international research group,...), outreach opportunities (Think Tank Museum, Summer Schools, etc). Our lab is currently collaborating in a EU funded ITN project (MEICOM) with 12 international laboratories across Europe and 6 different industrial partners allowing us to have a very international training network around Europe. We are also collaborating with other labs in the USA and Asia.

Contact: Dr Eugenio Sanchez-Moran, University of Birmingham