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K-State Today

April 5, 2022

Hageman Distinguished Lecture Series to feature Daniel Voytas

Submitted by Biochemsistry and Molecular Biophysics

Daniel Voytas will present “Overcoming Bottlenecks in Plant Gene Editing” at 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 6, in the Wildcat Chamber in the K-State Student Union. A research colloquium will follow at 9 a.m. Thursday, April 7, when Voytas will present “Gene Editing Ushers in a New Era in Plant Agriculture” in the Big 12 Room at the Union. Both events are part of the Richard H. and Elizabeth C. Hageman Distinguished Lectureship in Agricultural Biochemistry sponsored by the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics in the College of Arts and Sciences. The lecture and colloquium are free and open to the public.

Voytas obtained his bachelor's degree in biology at Harvard College and his doctorate 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. 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. 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.

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. His 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, or ZFNs, to selected genomic sites. Later work involved the development of transcription activator-like effector nucleases, or 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 the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 systems has further added to the genome editing toolbox. Voytas and his group are currently 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 Voytas’ work, soybeans with healthier oil, wheat with disease resistance and potatoes with improved shelf life have all been developed by Calyxt using TALEN technology. These improved crops are not considered transgenic by U.S. regulatory agencies, thereby speeding up their impact on farmers and consumers.

The Richard H. and Elizabeth C. Hageman Distinguished Lectureship in Agricultural Chemistry is made possible by the endowment provided by the Hagemans. Professor Hageman was recognized for his formulation that rate-limiting enzymes could be identified and used as a basis to select for specific traits that lead to higher crop yields. This singular focus, which resulted from and contributed to his research on nitrate reductase, is so basic and now so readily understood that it is taken for granted in all of plant science. His major contributions to understanding of plant nitrogen metabolism included the finding that nitrate reductase is an inducible enzyme and identification of nitrite reductase as a distinct enzyme dependent on ferredoxin in chloroplasts.

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