Hageman Distinguished Lecturer in Agricultural Biochemistry
Dr. Daniel Voytas
Director, Center for Precision Plant Genomics
April 6-7, 2022
Public Lecture: "Overcoming Bottlenecks in Plant Gene Editing"
Research Colloquium: "Gene Editing Ushers in a New Era in Plant Agriculture"
About the Speaker
Dr. Daniel Voytas obtained his A.B. (summa cum laude) in Biology at Harvard College and his Ph.D. in Genetics with Fred Ausubel at Harvard Medical School. After his post-doctoral research with Jef Boeke at Johns Hopkins University, he was a faculty member at Iowa State University before moving to the University of Minnesota. Now, at the University of Minnesota, he is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor and the founding Director of the Center for Precision Plant Genomics. He is also one of the co-founders and current Chair of the Science Advisory Board of Calyxt, Inc., a biotechnology company that uses gene-editing technologies to improve plant productivity and quality. Dr. Voytas is a recipient of numerous awards, including being elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2015 and a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2019.
Dr. Voytas is most well-known for his pioneering work in developing different methods for modifying DNA sequences in a targeted manner. This interest of his, particularly in applying it to plants, has spanned his entire career. Dr. Voytas’ doctoral work looking for transposable elements in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana was extended during his postdoctoral research when he discovered the Ty5 retrotransposon in baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Importantly, Ty5 only targeted inactive heterochromatic regions of the genome, suggesting an approach to target specific DNA sequences. Subsequent efforts included using the sequence-recognition capabilities of zinc-finger motifs to direct nucleases (ZFNs) to selected genomic sites. Later work involved the development of Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases (TALENs), created by linking nucleases to TALE proteins from the bacterial genus Xanthomonas. Importantly, TALE proteins proved simpler than ZFNs to create long arrays capable of precisely targeting specific genomic sites. More recently, the use of CRISPR/Cas systems has further added to the genome editing toolbox. Current work by Dr. Voytas and his group is focused on making plant genome editing more efficient, including improving the delivery of modification reagents.
The ability to easily mutate or edit genes in a targeted manner has already begun to profoundly transform both basic and applied research in the life sciences. From an agricultural perspective, this technology offers a new era of targeted and rapid crop improvement. In the specific context of Dr. Voytas’ work for example, soybeans with healthier oil, wheat with disease resistance and potatoes with improved shelf life, have all been developed by Calyxt using TALEN technology. Importantly, these improved crops are not considered transgenic by US regulatory agencies, thereby speeding up their impact on farmers and consumers.