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'Science' names University of Minnesota researcher's gene-modification technique one of 2012's top scientific breakthroughs

Monday, January 7, 2013

Media note: For a high-resolution image of Daniel Voytas, please contact Matt Hodson (mjhodson@umn.edu) or Stephanie Xenos (sxenos@umn.edu).

An approach to modify genes developed by University of Minnesota researcher Daniel Voytas and colleagues was among the "breakthroughs of the year" detailed in a special issue of Science published December 21. The technique, based on enzymes called TALENs (transcription activator–like effector nucleases) that "read" DNA and makes pinpoint changes in a targeted gene, offers researchers an unprecedented level of control for gene modification.

Science underscores the significance of rapid developments relating to gene modification made possible by TALENs and related techniques, describing such advances as "unthinkable just a few years ago." The publication notes that the technique represents a clear turning point. Previous approaches to changing or deleting DNA were unpredictable and imprecise at best. With its novel accuracy and control, TALENs hold the promise of correcting genetic disease without the risks associated with past methods of gene modification.

"It’s exciting to be directly involved with a technology that is changing the way we do biology," said Voytas, a professor in the university’s Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development and director of the Center for Genome Engineering. "The hard work and ingenuity of many has led to new-found control over genetic material that makes it possible to do things we haven’t been able to before."

The university has filed a request for a patent on the technique and has licensed the technology to the French biotechnology company Cellectis, which opened a research and development division in the Twin Cities in 2011. Voytas serves as chief science officer for Cellectis plant sciences.

TALENs represent a progression from zinc finger nucleases, or ZFNs, which came on the scene more than a decade ago. ZFNs explore the DNA in a cell nucleus, probing with extensions, or "zinc fingers," until they find the particular DNA sequences they have been designed to ferret out. They then chop those sequences out of the chromosome, replacing them with new sequences. But where ZFNs are difficult and expensive to produce, TALENs work better and are far easier and cheaper to make.

Since the introduction of TALENs in 2010, demand has grown rapidly in research labs. The technique has been used successfully by researchers studying a range of topics as diverse as heart disease and plant productivity. Voytas’ lab is interested in using the technique to improve disease resistance in plants and to make plants healthier by modifying plant oils and carbohydrates.

Daniel Voytas
University of Minnesota researcher Daniel Voytas

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