Epigenetics: Fine-Tuning Seed Innovation

This month, Inari announced an exclusive patent licensing agreement for epigenetics technology through the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The license, based on discoveries by UCLA Professor Steve Jacobsen, a scientific co-founder of Inari, provides the company with a portfolio of powerful new tools that could dramatically improve field performance and confer other beneficial characteristics to crops.

Like Dr. Jacobsen, Inari Scientific Advisory Board member Nathan Springer, Ph.D., professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota, specializes in epigenetics. And while much of the news about the field has been associated with its potential implications for human health research, Nathan explains how Jacobsen’s work in the field makes epigenetics a major game-changer for agriculture as well.

What exactly is epigenetics — in lay terms, please?

Nathan Springer: Epigenetics refers to natural mechanisms that affect the way genes work.

These are differences in living organisms that can be passed on to subsequent generations, and those differences have nothing to do with the DNA sequence. Instead, this epigenetic information affects the processes that influence how genes are expressed without requiring a change in the underlying genetic code.

The genome of an organism is fixed for life, but the epigenome can be flexible. It can change depending on factors in the environment, and we know these are common mechanisms present in both plants and animals.

Along with genetics, epigenetics is important in influencing many characteristics, including health. For example, studies have been conducted on sets of genetically identical twins in which one develops a disease, such as a complex autoimmune disorder, but the other does not. In these cases, environmental or other factors have influenced the health of these people through changes to their epigenome.

How might these discoveries work in agriculture?

NS: If we truly understand epigenetic gene control, then we can develop tools to influence gene expression — which can affect the way a plant appears or performs — in ways that mimic what we see in nature.

Steve Jacobsen, whose discoveries underpin the patents, spent 20 years decoding epigenetic pathways and developing tools that will now allow the company to do just that. With these tools, Inari’s researchers can help increase genetic diversity and work to shape new seeds that meet some of the challenges facing agriculture and our food supply.

What do you think the future holds for epigenetics in the seed industry?

NS: We’re just beginning to tap this potential, but we know it holds a lot of possibility.

Inari was founded because someone asked the question: “Why is plant breeding being conducted the same way today as it has been for the past 100 years?” And when you consider the modern capabilities and insight we have, why isn’t agriculture as an industry being more innovative in its efforts to enhance crop performance and address problems like food insecurity and over-reliance on water and chemical fertilizers? These are important questions that I believe epigenetics discoveries could help answer.

Gene expression underlies many of the traits we value in crops, including yield, flowering, the way a plant is structured, adaptability to its environment, its resilience, and a host of other characteristics.

If we’re able to control epigenetic changes in the gene expression of plants, we could modify these traits to benefit the industry as it rises to address these challenges. This could be especially relevant in some crops that are vegetatively propagated, as we could create new traits that are not available through traditional genetic approaches.

I believe that, in coming years, epigenetics will become a significant, enabling part of these solutions.