An auto-correct system in plants could fix human gene faults

An auto-correct system for genetic errors in plants is helping plant breeders grow robust hybrid crops more efficiently. It also offers new tools for modifying human and animal proteins without modifying their genomes.

It’s a discovery that has come from years of research by University of Western Australia scientists into how plants capture, store and use energy.

Photos: Ian Small’s gene repair tools could change plant and animal breeding Credit: ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology
Ian Small’s gene repair tools could change plant and animal breeding. Credit: ARC CoE in Plant Energy Biology

Ian Small and his team have found that plants cope with the accumulation of genetic errors in mitochondrial DNA by using a particular family of proteins, the pentatricopeptide repeat (PPR) family, to search for and replace mistakes in RNA sequences, which serve as working copies of the DNA code.

Errors in our DNA are removed from the gene pool over generations through breeding and the recombination of genes. But the system is different for mitochondria, the power packs of animal and plant cells.

The DNA in mitochondria is passed down as a clone from the mother, meaning any random genetic errors that arise accumulate with each generation, often resulting in faulty genes.

Now that Ian and his team have discovered how the proteins recognise the RNA errors, they are helping plant breeders improve methods for breeding hybrid varieties of wheat, which is challenging and very inefficient.

“This will provide a better method of developing more energy-efficient wheat, resulting in higher yields and plants that are more resistant to droughts and pathogens, which farmers will hopefully be growing in the next 10 years,” says Ian.

Further down the track, Ian hopes his research will help design custom-built proteins that can be sent into the human body to bind to a desired stretch of RNA, and could be used for a range of purposes from blocking RNA viruses to turning gene expression on or off.

For a careers-worth of genetic code-cracking, Ian was awarded the 2014 WA Scientist of the Year.

For more information: The University of Western Australia/ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, Ian Small,,

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