A team from the University of Calgary has used gene editing to produce a shorter canola plant with more branches and flowers, the university announced on 1 February.

In the study, the Faculty of Science team used gene editing to modify the canola’s own genes.

The idea behind the study was to modify the canola’s height and shape so that more plants could be grown in the same amount of space, potentially increasing crop yield.

“We showed that gene editing actually works in canola, and simultaneously improved agronomic traits in canola by changing the plant’s architecture,” said study co-author Dr Marcus Samuel, the director of greenhouse operations in the Department of Biological Science.

This was the first time Samuel’s lab had attempted gene editing in canola, in this case using a wild type strain of the plant.

The team targeted the gene BnD14, the receptor for a hormone called strigolactone. Previous research in an experimental model plant called Arabidopsis (a cousin of canola) and in rice had shown that shorter plants with increased branching had much less strigolactone or reduced ability to recognise this hormone.

“The gene editing is like a molecular scissors,” study lead Matija Stanic, said. “We engineer the plant to produce the enzymes required to do this little surgery in these genes.”

This deactivated the signaling pathway that regulated the development of some of the canola plant’s architecture, including height and branching.

After doing the gene editing, the team then was able to crossbreed the edited canola line to eliminate the DNA used for gene editing to obtain the edited strain of canola without any trace of foreign DNA.

In their modified wild-type canola strain, the team was able to increase the number of branches from the typical 20 to around 60. They also increased the production of flowers by about 200%, within the same reproductive period and lifespan of canola grown in Canada.

The gene editing technique used was “very precise”, study co-author Neil Hickerson added, which meant this approach had “much greater potential to increase the yield of each plant.”

The lab is in discussion with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to conduct field trials this year to confirm if the new canola strain produced a higher yield.

The study ‘Gene Editing of the Strigolactone Receptor BnD14 Confers Promising Shoot Architectural Changes in Brassica napus (Canola)’ was published in Plant Biotechnology Journal.

Dr Rex Arunraj, a visiting scientist from the SRM Institute of Technology in Chennai, India, also collaborated in the research.