Epicrop Technologies Founder’s Research Demonstrates Enhanced Vigor in Plants Grafted with an Epigenetic “Memory”

Manipulation of one gene prompts plants to improve performance and yield; research shows effective transmission in grafted plants to their progeny.  

KANSAS CITY, Mo.—Oct. 26, 2020TechAccel, the Kansas City-based technology and venture development company, applauds Dr. Sally Mackenzie, founder of Epicrop Technologies Inc., for publication of an important discovery in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Communications.

The paper builds upon the understanding of epigenetic mechanisms that plants use to respond to environmental stress. This natural plant mechanism results in a heritable epigenetic “memory” of how to respond to stress.

A significant finding is that resulting plants selected for their vigor and productivity can transfer this advantage to other related plants by grafting.

“We think that this study represents a major breakthrough in showing the potential of epigenetic breeding for crops,” said Dr. Mackenzie, as reported by Penn State University. “And later, it will have major implications for trees and forests in the face of climate change.” 

The epigenetic technology involves specific changes in the expression of some genes in the existing DNA; it does not modify the plant’s DNA sequence and does not require the introduction of new genetic material from another source or gene editing. This technology avoids the controversy surrounding both genetically modified and gene edited plants.

“We see important implications for plant and crop breeding,” said Brad Fabbri, Ph.D., TechAccel Chief Science Officer. “Multi-year efforts by both Dr. Mackenzie’s and Epicrop’s research teams have rigorously demonstrated that a plant with the epigenetic ‘memory’ for stress avoidance can pass that on to other plants by grafting.”

He continued: “These resulting plants have significant agronomic advantages over their unimproved relatives. The grafting method described in the paper is in principal simple and should be a useful tool for plant breeders to improve their broad portfolio.”

Dr. Mackenzie’s paper, published Oct. 22, 2020, addressed research was performed on tomato plants in large-scale field trials in Pennsylvania, California and Florida. The grafted tomato plants involved in the research produced seed that resulted in progeny that were, on average, 35% more productive. Additionally, that growth vigor persisted in the progeny over five generations in the research.

“This technique is immediately transferrable from the tomato to other crops,” said Dr. Fabbri, noting that TechAccel and Dr. Mackenzie’s startup company, Epicrop Technologies, are engaged in field trials now with canola, and are advancing the technology in strawberry. TechAccel has supported Dr. Mackenzie’s research since investing in Epicrop Technologies’ extended Series A round in 2017.

Dr. Mackenzie is a professor of plant science in the College of Agricultural Sciences and professor of biology in the Eberly College of Science. She holds the Lloyd and Dottie Huck Chair for Functional Genomics and serves as the director of the Plant Institute at Penn State. She founded Epicrop Technologies, an agricultural biotechnology company, following her research discoveries in epigenetics while at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In the Penn State report, Dr. Mackenzie called the research “the first true demonstration of an agriculturally amenable epigenetic breeding method.” Further, the technology is ready to deploy immediately.

“Everything we're doing, any plant breeder in agriculture can do, and now we've shown on a large scale that it has agricultural value. It's ready to go — a breeder could read about this and implement the system to improve his or her variety,” Mackenzie said in the Penn State report.

“This research shows why we are so excited to be collaborating with Dr. Mackenzie and Epicrop Technologies,” Fabbri said, “We look forward to seeing a significant impact in global agriculture.”


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