Plant Biotechnology for Agriculture and Medicine


Since January 1983, when for the first time at a conference on plant molecular biology in Miami the first reports on the obtaining of fertile transgenic plants has been made, plant biotechnology has become one of the driving forces of human progress. These days the area of the land cultivated with transgenic plants reaches 180 million hectares per year. The global value of biotech seed alone was ~US$15.3 billion in 2015 (ISAAA executive summary).

During Soviet times Ukrainian scientists worked actively on the field of plant gene and cell engineering. In the 70s Ukrainian group lead by Yuri Gleba obtained first somatic hybrids of plants. Researchers from the Institute of Cell Biology and Genetic Engineering (ICBGE), the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, developed the technology of obtaining transgenic plants for numerous agricultural species such as potato, alfalfa, pea, sugar beet, canola, wheat, maize and others. Moreover, the transgenic plants were generated based on the local cultivars produced by Ukrainian plant breeders. The genes encoding herbicide resistance were transferred into the plant genomes along with selectable and reporter markers. The activity of corn transposon Spm/dSpm was demonstrated in transgenic plants of sugar beet. Among the genetic tools a new regulatory system for transferring genes that includes the lox sites of the Cre recombinase of bacteriophage P1 is used.

Research and development of transplastomic plant technologies is one of the Ukrainian scientists’ priorities. Gene transfer into chloroplast genome (plastome) opens a number of new possibilities. The molecular basics of plastome transformation in different Solanaceae and Brassicaceae species as well as the transfer of transformed plastome among different species were demonstrated using somatic hybridization methods. These approaches increase the chances of gene transfer into plastomes of different species and allow the investigators to understand nuclear-cytoplasmic interactions. Quite recently, the scientists from ICBGE published data on feasibility of regulation of transgene expression in chloroplasts of transplastomic plants.

Nowadays, the Ukrainian researches have an access to the broad spectrum of different techniques needed for genetic alterations of important agricultural species. Aiming to correct genomes the CRISPR-Cas9 system is one of few worth mentioning. This modern technology is important as its use makes it possible to overcome problems related to public concerns about biotech plants.

One of the important areas in plant genetic engineering is generation of plant systems producing proteins for pharmaceutical industry or veterinary medicine.

Among current cofounders and heads of German biotechnological companies Icon Genetics GmbH and Nomad Bioscience GmbH you can meet former employees of the Institute of Cell Biology and Genetic Engineering NAS of Ukraine. They developed a technology of full-sized recombinant antibodies biosynthesis in plants and that approach was used for ZMapp production - an experimental biopharmaceutical drug consisting of three chimeric monoclonal antibodies for Ebola virus disease treatment.

Studies on accumulation of pharmaceutically valuable proteins in plants, ‘molecular farming’, is under development in Ukraine too. The transgenic lines of carrot and lettuce accumulating the physiologically active human interferon alpha were established recently. Additionally, it was shown that treatment of human tumor cell cultures Hep-2 with crude soluble protein extract from the transgenic carrot led to decrease of O6-methylguanine-DNA methyltransferase activity, an enzyme that plays role in tumor cell resistance during chemotherapy. That feature could be of great value for cancer therapy.

Development of edible vaccines is one of the perspective fields in molecular farming. Transgenic plants, usually crops, that accumulated products of introduced heterologous gene expression, could induce specific or nonspecific immune response in humans or animals. As a part of this project, transgenic cultures of lettuce, chicory, duckweed and carrot expressing secretory proteins of Mycobacterium tuberculosis Ag85b and ESAT6 were obtained and studied. Such plants may be suggested as a potential remedy in tuberculosis prophylaxis.

Focus on world flora biodiversity preservation as one of the important research fields in plant biotechnology in Ukraine resulted in founding and maintaining of the National Germplasm Bank of World Flora at the Institute of Cell Biology and Genetic Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (Kyiv, Ukraine). The collection includes seeds of near 5000 species belonging to more than 1000 genera and 187 families, as well as several hundreds of in vitro plant cultures. Furthermore, the species of native vascular plants of Antarctica are represented in aseptic culture collection too. The collection could be considered as a valuable source of plant biomass for variable screening programs e.g. searching for novel products of plant secondary metabolism, peptides and proteins, genes or genetic regulatory elements, as it was shown in the recent works.

Transgenic plant progression and cultivation of genetically modified crops (GMO) in the fields raised some questions about efficient heterologous DNA identification. To meet these demands, our scientists designed a tool for easy development and modification of protocols based on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect transgenes that is suitable to reveal wide range of transgenes in variable plant species and to control their behavior. In addition, an innovative technology of functional molecular markers was established to select high quality resistant forms of wheat, barley, maize plants, as well as to carry out certification and genotyping. Elucidating allelic frequencies and assessing genetic diversity for wild and endangered species we present new scientific challenges and international opportunities that are both fundamental and applied in nature.

Thus, it can be clearly stated that the development of plant science in Ukraine has a big impact on the modernization and implementation of new technologies in agriculture and medicine. Unquestionably, the Ukrainian scientists have relevant experience in the area of plant biotechnology that is well recognized worldwide.


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