Program 3a: Technological innovations in plant genome engineering  

Developing and deploying new genetic technologies establishing crop genome-engineering pipelines to apply to industry-relevant, cutting-edge projects

Image © Charles Tambiah

University Investigators: Jenny Mortimer, Spencer Whitney, Dabing Zhang, Bob Furbank, Matt Tucker, Tony Millar, Barry Pogson

Potential Partners and Institutions for Placements: CSIRO, Cluster of Excellence on Plant Sciences, Heinrich-Heine-University Germany, John Innes Centre UK, NIAB UK.

Contact: Deputy Director Tony Millar

Overview. A long-promised agricultural revolution via genetically superior crops is now within reach, with precision crop design being realised through unprecedented innovations such as gene-editing, SynBio and crop transgenesis.

Projects in this program will develop and innovate in state-of-the-art genetic technologies, for deployment into Australia’s major crop species. Given the rapid development of such technologies, projects will include training with our international partners (NIAB, JIC and CePLAS).

The Programs

Program 3.1 – Crop Transgenesis (ANU/UA)

Creating genetically modified crops, has remained a major and controversial bottleneck in crop development pipelines. The science has relied on complex, time-consuming, and labour-intensive tissue-culture protocols that are decades-old.  

Projects will include the appraisal and innovation in Tissue-culture free transgenesis protocols, via the expression of master Developmental Regulators that can reprogram cells to regenerate whole plants [Lowe et al., 2016], enable high efficiency transformation in multiple crop species [Maher et al., 2020]. The impact of these projects will be to empower the next-generation plant breeders to use gene-editing and SynBiotechnologies.

Image © Charles Tambiah

Program 3.2 – Gene-editing (ANU/UA)

Based on the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, gene-editing won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and is now being widely applied in plants. The technology’s precision has rapidly improved by the development of new tools, such as Prime-editors, [Kang et al., 2018].

Remarkably, Transgenesis-free gene-editing can now be achieved via the above Developmental Regulators [Maher et al., 2020], thereby eliminating the need to back-cross out transgenes, and creating plants considered non-GMOs; and thus available for immediate commercial use. 

Projects will investigate innovation and application of these technology in major Australian crop species.  

Image © Charles Tambiah

Program 3.3 – Transient Systems (ANU)

Transient Systems are needed for a genuine SynBio (Design-Build-Test-Learn) capability. Current capacity is largely limited to the medium-throughput dicot Nicotiana benthamiana leaf infiltration system, so development of a parallel monocot transient system is an essential priority for high thru-put and SynBio applications in cereal research.

Approaches will include protoplast systems, for which complex output traits can be assessed via fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS), providing the throughput level to screen genetic variants in vivo and explore compatibility with robotics to increase capacity to meet the SynBioparadigm.

Students in this program will engage with those in Program 2, to assess the social, regulatory and market impacts of the newly developed technologies and to ensure, community informed, responsible innovation.


The ARC Training Centre for Accelerated Future Crops Development is funded by the Australian Research Council under its Industrial Transformation Training Hubs Program to run from 2022 to 2027.

It is a collaboration of universities, government research agencies and the Australian grains sector’s key stakeholders in training, R&D, social engagement, responsible innovation, breeding, marketing and delivery.

It also has international partners in gene-editing, SynBio, crop breeding, and, other partnerships for co-developing deep technologies to transform the agriculture industry and global food security.