31.08.2018 change 31.08.2018

Wrocław scientists are working on plant modification method that could be an alternative to GMO

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Wrocław scientists are working on creating a plant modification method that could be an alternative to GMO. They want to use epigenetic methods to obtain flax that will give higher yields and be resistant to disease.

Raw materials from such flax (fibre, oil or bioraffinates) can be the basis for preparations that support wound healing and pain killers, and be components of biodegradable composites for the production of medical implants or car equipment.

"Our goal is to create an alternative to genetic modification of plants. We want to use techniques that do not require interference in the genome, epigenetic methods, to induce beneficial traits in plants" - explains Dr. Magdalena Żuk from the Department of Genetic Biochemistry, Faculty of Biotechnology, University of Wroclaw.

The researcher emphasises that scientists are currently working on improving useful plants, mainly flax, with methods that are no longer based on genetic engineering (introducing changes to the plant`s DNA). "We want to do it in a more subtle but targeted way, using natural processes, for example by controlling the DNA methylation process" - she adds.

Changes in methylation can also be caused by various environmental stresses: low temperature or drought, but they are unpredictable and impossible to control. Wrocław researchers use more scientific tools, for example short nucleic acid sequences directed to specific DNA fragments. Unlike in the case of GMOs, they will not build into the DNA or damage its fragment, they will only cause changes in methylation.

"We are trying to develop and optimise such technologies so that similar changes to those previously obtained with genetic engineering methods can be achieved with more sophisticated, epigenetic methods" - notes Dr. Żuk.

Researchers from the University of Wroclaw are working on achieving changes in the content of isoprenoid, phenylpropanoid, glutathione and other compounds in flax. This allows to obtain flax that is more resistant to attacks of pathogens and yielding a higher yield: more seeds and better quality fibre and oil.

But first of all - as the researcher emphasises - such modified flax has very good biomedical properties. "It was already the basis of linen dressings, which we used in the support of wound healing, including chronic wounds. After biorefinery stage, flax products: oil, pomace, seed pressing by-products and flax straw, were used as activators of those linen dressings. They may be beneficial in preventing and supporting the treatment of various types of diseases, including dermatological diseases accompanying the atopic skin or psoriasis" - she notes.

Wrocław scientists are also working on flax with introduced polyhydroxybutyrate. "This compound will be incorporated into the fibre structure, changing its mechanical properties and its compatibility with various types of plastics: polypropylene and polystyrene" - describes Magdalena Żuk.

According to Żuk, such fibres can be successfully used for the production of biocomposites with properties so good that they can be used not only in the production of various types of automobile or airplane parts, but also for biomedical applications, for example as dental or vein implants. During their research on flax, scientists also noticed that it contains cannabinoids, compounds known from cannabis. However, it is not the hallucinogenic THC, but cannabidiol, a compound that has quite a strong analgesic and anti-inflammatory effect.

"This compound is found in high amounts in seeds, fibres and straw. In the future, its presence may translate into the biomedical application of flax products. We hope that the presence of cannabidiol will be used in various types of chronic diseases associated with pain" - the biochemist emphasises.

The research will probably take a few more years. Dr Żuk admits that for some types of plants, researchers have already managed to obtain those with interesting and desirable properties using epigenetic methods. "Research is advanced, we have tons of seeds of the first plants resistant to fungal infections. Other plants, for example enriched with beneficial phenylpropanoid compounds or producing +perfect oil+, are at the stage of pilot production" - she says.

"Some of our goals are at the first stage, we are trying to achieve the desired changes and induce them in plants. This results in part from the structure of genes that we want to influence, because some genes are easier, others are a little more resistant" - concludes Dr. Magdalena Żuk from the University of Wrocław

PAP - Science in Poland, Kamil Szubański

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