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Berkeley scientists develop ‘jumping genes’ for cereal

Daily Planet wire services
Monday March 12, 2001

Using a form of genetic hitchhiking, researchers have developed a method of placing genes in barley and other cereals in a way that eases safety concerns and minimizes the problem of “gene-silencing.” 

Developed by scientists at the University of California at Berkeley, the new method uses so-called “jumping genes” to ferry new genes into cereals like barley. The technique will allow plant biologists to boost nutritional content, improve pest resistance, reduce allergens and even perhaps speed up beermaking. The process does not use viral particles for transporting genes, nor does it rely on antibiotic-resistence screening — two methods that have raised safety concerns for some people.  

“Our method is ready to use by plant biologists to create new varieties of cereal crops in a manner that is both quick and very safe,” said Peggy Lemaux, a plant biologist at UC Berkeley’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, in the college of Natural Resources.  

Lemaux and her colleagues devised a way to overcome the challenge of maintaining gene’s activities over time. By delivering just one copy of the gene and coax it into an area where genes can be expressed, away from dense regions of repeating DNA.  

But creating a plant that contains only one genetic copy is difficult using some conventional techniques. Instead, Lemaux and her colleagues engineered the genes to hitchhike on mobile pieces of DNA called jumping genes.  

When the jumping gene hops through the plant’s genome, it usually lands in low-density DNA territory where conditions are favorable for making the protein that is encoded by the inserted gene.  

To harness the system, Lemaux and colleagues hitch their gene of interest to the part of the gene that allows it to jump.  

With this technique, Lemaux’s group can quickly generate single-copy plants. The group is also working on a technique to insert genes to reduce allergens, boost digestible protein content of animal feed and produce a barley with a shorter malting time.  

From the UC Berkeley press office.