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Scientists edit out chicory root’s bitter genes in new breeding technique

July 25, 2021
Food & Drink

Researchers have developed a chicory plant that no longer contains bitter substances using genome editing and new breeding techniques. By utilizing CRISPR-Cas technology, researchers can now alter the level of bitterness in chicory for the desired end application.

By developing a chicory plant without bitter substances, inulin processing could become easier, cheaper and more sustainable, the researchers write.

“It was technically difficult, but it worked. We have learned which genes are involved in the formation of the bitter substances,” says Katarina Cankar, plant scientist at Wageningen University & Research (WUR).

WUR leads the research consortium behind the European Chic Project, which is funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 program to improve the family of chicory that contains good dietary fiber and medicinal substances.

Genome editing
The new method is significantly faster than conventional cross-breeding without being “genetically modified,” as no new DNA is added to the plant.

The new CRISPR-Cas technique specifically focuses on only the chicory DNA responsible for certain desired or undesirable properties of the plant.

“This technique introduces small changes in the DNA. It’s called genome editing. So the chicory just contains its own DNA,” explains Paul Bundock of KeyGene, a Netherlands-based company within the consortium behind the European Chic Project.

“We have eliminated four genes responsible for the bitter substances. For this, we have taken cells from the leaf, which are treated with the technology and allowed to grow back into plants in the greenhouse.

Using CRISPR-Cas is faster than traditional cross-breeding because the approach is more targeted. Conventional breeding can result in many undesirable traits in the target plant. Using CRISPR-Cas, only the plants that produce the favorable trait are then selected to be bred.

Improving yield
The researchers are also working on chicory lines that are less sensitive to the degradation of inulin that occurs naturally in the autumn when growing.

“The amount of inulin is not a constant factor. The peak is in October and November. Due to colder weather conditions, the plant appeals to the stock of inulin faster. The new variant should be less sensitive to this and therefore be able to deliver more inulin,” says Matthew de Roode, corporate development manager at Sensus. Sensus is an inulin producer based in the Netherlands, which also participates in the European Chic Project.

Applications for bitter compounds
Within the European Chic project, researchers and companies are also working on a type of chicory plant that contains specific bitter substances known as terpenes. These substances may serve as anti-inflammatories and as an anti-cancer drug.

“Bitter substances protect the plant from fungi and bacteria. Within the project, we were able to demonstrate anti-inflammatory activity. And previous research has shown that bitter substances in the chicory have an anti-worm effect in sheep,” explains de Roode.

Consumer acceptance?
Amid rises in clean label and anti-GMO sentiment, the European Chic project aims to understand the level of consumer acceptance for new breeding techniques.

“We also want to know what the European citizen thinks about the new breeding techniques that do not build in additional DNA. In addition to a breeding project, this is an opinion-forming project,” says de Roode.

One way the consortium reaches out to the consumer is through an online exhibition and an app, where consumers can “sow” chicory.

“Our art and science section works with artists to talk about plant breeding in a different way and to make people curious,” adds Cankar.

“We are developing new lines of chicory and looking broadly into the safety of products. Our research project contributes to improving chicory cultivation and people’s health.” The findings were recently published in Plant Biotechnology Journal.

Chicory in demand
Inulin from chicory root can be used in bread and dairy products and as a dietary fiber for healthy intestinal function.

Rising interest in digestive health, in particular, has bolstered interest in the plant-based ingredient as a dietary fiber and prebiotic.

Beneo has made significant investments to expand its production of chicory root fiber in Chile and Belgium to meet the rising demand for its multifunctional uses.

Industry is driving awareness of the ingredients’ health benefits through legislation. In May, chicory root fibers inulin and oligofructose were approved for a prebiotic claim for the first time in Indonesia by the country’s National Agency of Drug and Food Control (Badan Pengawas Obat dan Makanan). The legislative move was backed by scientific data from Beneo.

By Missy Green


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