News,Views & Insights on Biotechnology

Browsing Posts in Inspiring Interviews

The draft sequence of the Wheat Genome (Chinese Spring Wheat) has been released and researchers are eagerly looking forward to the possibilities of developing drought resistant, salinity resistant and pest resistant varieties of this important crop plant. Biotechwiz spoke to eminent Wheat Physiologist Dr. Matthew Reynolds from the CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) about this momentous development. Dr. Reynolds has been associated with Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel prize winner and agronomist whom most readers would know as ” the father of the Green Revolution” Dr. Borlaug was head of the Wheat Program at the CIMMYT.

The Interview with Dr. Reynolds is the first of two parts. The second part will be devoted exclusively to his role in the CIMMYT and the yeoman service this organization has carried out in taking the world closer to food security.

Biotechwiz presents excerpts from an exclusive interview with Dr. Matthew Reynolds, who has been intimately connected with improvement of Wheat strains, on the release of the draft sequence of the reference strain of the Chinese Spring Wheat:

Dr. Mathew Reynolds

Dr Matthew Reynolds: CIMMYT

Biotechwiz: You are described as a wheat physiologist. Can you elaborate on the nature of your work?

Dr. Matthew Reynolds:  As wheat physiologist at CIMMYT the main task is to uncover ways to improve the ability of wheat to be more productive in a range of the environments from those with high yield -such as the Punjab- to those with heat and drought stress, with a special focus on developing countries. Activities encompass the following broad objectives: Through wide consultation define factors that limit current productivity; Develop breeding technologies through collaborative research encompassing novel and conventional approaches; Coordinate multidisciplinary elements of projects over different target countries thereby facilitating relevance and delivery of products; Lead a team of scientists and technicians in Mexico to address specific research objectives as well as human capacity development.

BW: The draft sequence of the genome of the Chinese Spring wheat has just been released. What, according to you, will be the most immediate benefit of this work?

Dr. Reynolds: There will be no immediate benefit as the job of sequencing must be completed thoroughly, however, the long term benefits will be that we can use genetic information to more precisely move useful physiological traits into good agronomic cultivars.

BW: You have spoken in earlier articles of the need to develop crops that will be more resistant to climate change. Do you think that the draft sequence will reveal sufficient data in order to be able to develop such plants or will we need to wait for the finished sequence?

Dr. Reynolds: It will most likely need to wait for the finished sequence.

BW: Breeders have reacted to the news saying they will be able to select for specific traits such as drought or salinity resistance using ‘Macro- assisted selection’. Can you tell us how they would carry out such selection and what does macro-assisted selection actually mean?

Dr. Reynolds: I have not heard of macro-assisted selection before. I assume it refers to whole genome selection, which is a way of taking into account the diversity of the whole genome as opposed to focusing on a few loci. Certainly complex traits like drought adaptation will benefit from considering the whole genome as their genetic basis is complex.

BW: Could you tell us a bit about the CIMMYT and the role you play in the organisation? Also will your organisation be working on developing newer strains of wheat using the sequence data that has become available?

Dr. Reynolds: CIMMYT -a member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)- partners with hundreds of breeders worldwide and delivers new crop genotypes to developing countries on a large scale as freely available global public goods. The impact of this work on the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers in less developed countries is well documented. The value of the international wheat breeding effort coordinated by CIMMYT is estimated at several billion dollars of extra revenue annually, spread among millions of farmers. While the impact of the so called Green Revolution cultivars were initially in relatively favourable environments, subsequent breeding and dissemination effort has resulted in economic benefits in more marginal environments, including those affected by drought and heat stress. This breeding-evaluation-delivery pipeline encompasses the following elements: (i) free exchange of germplasm with national agricultural research services worldwide, (ii) a centralized breeding effort that focuses on generic needs –i.e. yield potential, yield stability, genetic resistance to range of biotic and abiotic stresses, consumer-oriented quality traits-, (iii) distribution of international nurseries targeted to a number of major wheat agro-ecosystems via national wheat programs in over 120 countries, (iv) analysis of international yield trials and global disease monitoring to ensure relevance of current local, regional and global breeding activities, (v) capacity building and training of research partners, (Reynolds and Borlaug, 2006; attached).

BW: Finally, would you like to speculate on the time-frame it is likely to take for the benefits of the sequence data to become obvious?

Dr. Reynolds: I was told it will take around 5 years to complete the project, then their will be a research phase, followed by application and breeding. Could be around 20 years before benefits are felt by farmers.

Image Credit:

An Interview with Dr. Krishanu Saha from the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research: On the invention of a new Synthetic Surface for the Cultivation of Human Stem cells for up to three months.

Scientists at MIT have developed a novel synthetic surface for the cultivation of human stem cells. The research team, led by Professors Robert Langer, Rudolf Jaenisch and Daniel G. Anderson, describes the new material in the Aug. 22 issue of Nature Materials. First authors of the paper are postdoctoral associates Krishanu Saha and Ying Mei. The new material was singled out of almost 500 polymers designed during the course of the study, and was found to be optimal after analysing  several chemical and physical properties of surfaces, including roughness, stiffness, and affinity for water that might play a role in stem cell growth. The new surface not only enabled Stem Cells to be grown for up to three months but also enabled harvesting of cells in the millions. Both of these attributes are very important to researchers as the in vitro culture of human Stem cells is fraught with difficulty. The surface also enables clonal growth of a stem cell allowing for easy selection of a particular cell with attributes of interest. As Researchers laud this important invention, Biotechwiz is proud to present an exclusive interview with Dr. Krishanu Saha, one of the authors of this seminal work. An excerpt of the interview is presented below:

Dr. Krishanu Saha

Dr. Krishanu Saha

Biotechwiz: Why did you feel the need to develop a new material for the growth of stem cells?

Dr. Krishanu Saha: When we started this work, there were only a handful of culturing materials that were used to grow human embryonic stem cells. Most of these materials included components from animal sources. These animal-derived components are problematic for any cell therapy applications envisioned with these cells, because such components utilized during cell culture can increase the risk of immune rejection when such cells are injected into a patient.  We therefore sought to explore whether a library of synthetic polymers coated with human-derived proteins could replace and improve on the conventional methods of growing human embryonic stem cells.

We also wanted to gain more molecular insight into how human embryonic stem cells grow outside of the body. Mouse embryonic stem cells have particular properties of cell growth and genetic manipulation that make them easier to work with in the lab.  We wondered whether we could devise better culture conditions for human embryonic stem cells by systematically exploring stem cell growth on a diverse set of polymeric materials.

BW: Can you elaborate a bit on the nature of this new surface that you have developed and what is the most unique feature of your invention according to you?

Dr. Saha: The new surfaces can be synthesized entirely from standard chemicals.  They utilize a particular chemistry that was not defined before this work to interact with a human protein, Vitronectin.  The most unique feature is that it can support the long-term culture of fully dissociated human embryonic stem cells as well as the recently ‘reprogrammed’ human induced pluripotent stem cells.

BW:  How soon do you think the research you have done will be available as a commercially viable product?

Dr. Saha: This question of technology transfer is a difficult one to predict. There are already a few commercial products based on other work with novel stem cell culture materials that was just published in May. So if we extrapolate from those cases, our work could be translated into products in less than a year.  I believe the MIT technology transfer office is dedicated to ensuring that the materials get widely used.

BW:  What is the trend your future research is likely to take?

Dr. Saha: I am generally interested in combining this work with recent advances in cellular reprogramming. Cellular reprogramming can produce embryonic stem cell-like cells called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from virtually any human cell source, such as a blood sample or biopsy.  I believe there is a key role of materials and engineering to play in developing these iPS cells for disease modelling and regenerative medicine applications.

BW: Can you tell us about any one hurdle that bugged you the most during your work?

Dr. Saha: Finding common patterns in the material characteristics that controlled the growth of the human embryonic stem cells was challenging.  We had hundreds of polymers with lots of data about surface chemistry, stiffness, and roughness that needed to be sorted and globally analyzed. At times, this seemed tedious, but it is part of the research process.