By Mekonnen Teshome
Tef is a small grain native to Ethiopia, where it is a staple food for millions and is estimated to provide up to two-thirds of the protein and dietary fiber consumed in the country.
However, while cultivating the grain Ethiopian farmers have always been endured by “Lodging”, a known phenomenon in crop production systems, the displacement of plants from their vertical stance and are the cause for reduced grain quality, significant and unpredictable yield losses in cereal crops. According to plant scientists, lodging causes the plants to bend or break because of wind or heavy rain.
To this end, researchers have embarked on a genome-editing research project aims at preventing the lodging problem in tef and improving the grain’s productivity
“The collaborative gene editing project by researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center’s Institute for International Crop Improvement (IICI), USA and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), targeted the same genes in the tef genome, and developed semi-dwarf tef varieties using the CRISPR cas9 gene editing technology,” the statement said.
It indicated that the reduced height of the genome-edited tef lines is expected to provide resistance to lodging (falling over) that results in yield losses of up to 25%, EIAR statement pointed out today.
The discovery of semidwarf stature as a valuable agronomic trait in grain crops stimulated research to transfer of this trait into commercial wheat and rice varieties through breeding. Consequently, high-yielding semi-dwarf varieties of wheat and rice were developed using conventional breeding techniques and resulted in a dramatic increase in grain production in the 1960s in what is now known as the Green Revolution. This development was a significant factor in maintaining per capita food supplies worldwide in the late twentieth century.
The genes responsible for the semi-dwarf phenotype were semi-dwarf-1 (SD1) in rice and Reduced height-1 (Rh1) in wheat.
A key scientist in the tef gene editing project, IICI’s Senior Manager, Regulatory Science at DDPSC, Dr. Getu Beyene said that “I grew up on a farm in Ethiopia and know first-hand that if we succeed, the benefits will be immense for our farmers.”
Genome-editing in Tef and its first scientific article
Dr Getu Beyene is the first author of the scientific article on tef gene editing (https://doi.org/10.1111/pbi.13842) published in the Plant Biotechnology Journal in 2022.
One of the researchers in this tef genome-editing project and the Ag-biotech Research Director at EIAR, Dr. Dejene Girma, expressed his firm conviction that, in addition to improved seed yield, these lines will enable mechanized tef harvesting. It was reported that EIAR has signed a memorandum of understanding with DDPSC for collaborative research, capacity building, and product development in genome editing in 2021.
Early last year, the edited lines were submitted for biosafety regulation in USA. After assessing the application, the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) has concluded that these genome-edited semi-dwarf tef are not subject to biotechnology regulation in the United States.
“We are greatly encouraged by this USDA decision as it establishes an important precedent for future tef plant breeding innovations to tackle productivity constraints, such as pod shattering, small grain size, weed control, and climate change,” said Donald MacKenzie, PhD, executive director of IICI.
“Our semi-dwarf tef lines will be undergoing field performance evaluation this year at the Danforth Center’s field research site.” According to a statement posted on EIAR’s official Facebook page, a team of EIAR researchers and the management, regulators from the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) will visit the performance trail sites in US and meet with DDPSC scientists and US regulators to enable the transfer of this technology to EIAR.
Tef has gained popularity worldwide due to its many health benefits and culinary versatility. It is a nutrient-dense grain that is high in protein, fiber, and several important minerals such as iron, calcium, and magnesium. In addition to being a staple food for Ethiopians, tef is also an important source of income for many small-scale farmers in the country.
Tef is also gluten-free, making it a great option for people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Tef production in the western United States, primarily in California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon, has been increasing in recent years because of a growing demand for gluten-free and healthful grains.