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Tiny Tomatoes Speed Genetic Engineering of Plants

REHOVOT, Israel,

...A tiny tomato, dubbed "Micro-Tom", may mean big news for genetic engineering. The Lilliputian plant, adapted for research by Dr. Avraham Levy of the Weizmann Institute of Science, is the key to a new method that may speed the process of unraveling the genetic code of plants, making it easier to identify and use commercially valuable genes.

Working together with Weizmann Institute Ph.D. student Rafi Meissner and Dr. Yoni Elkind of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dr. Levy of the Plant Sciences Department has taken Micro-Tom, a humble plant bred for city dwellers with limited gardening space, and joined it with a unique combination of technologies in order to speed of mutagenesis, the creation of new mutant plant strains.

The method, for which a patent has been applied, is described in a paper published in the December issue of The Plant Journal and is featured on the journal cover.

While mutations are commonly used to identify the function of individual plant genes, Levy's Micro-Tom, which puts out fruit twice as fast as conventional tomatoes, cuts the time necessary to produce such mutations by half. It also drastically reduces the amount of greenhouse space necessary for cultivating new mutant plant strains, making it easier to work with large plant populations.

Levy's method also makes mutations easy to analyze. Prevailing techniques, which use chemicals or radiation to create a mutant plant, result in random mutations that are difficult to trace to a particular spot in the plant's genetic code. The new technique, on the other hand, marks the plant genome with easily identified genetic "tags" that allow Levy to locate the exact spot where a mutation has taken place.

This traceability, together with the use of large plant populations, makes it feasible to identify the function of any plant gene: "If earlier techniques for creating mutations are something like playing the lottery", says Levy, "with this new method, we can buy all the tickets."

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