Plant Genomics 'Molecular Scissors' Developed at KAUST

By King Abdullah University Of Science Technology, PRNE
Tuesday, February 22, 2011

THUWAL, Saudi Arabia, February 23, 2011 - Researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
have developed a novel technology that could improve the quality, yield and
disease resistance of current crop varieties. The implications for
agricultural science are profound.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences,
USA (PNAS) Jan 24th, 2011, Dr. Magdy Mahfouz and the research team discuss a
new way of genetically engineering plants to tolerate aggressive
environments. Regions where water quantity and quality are limiting, such as
Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, could benefit by growing crops engineered
for stress tolerance, which would not only address the problem of the
nutritional needs of a growing population but could pave the way for surplus
crops to be exported to GM-restrictive markets like Japan.

Dr. Mahfouz works at the Plant Stress Genomics Research Center at KAUST,
directed by Professor Jian-Kang Zhu. This latest research is exactly in line
with its founder's expressed desire that KAUST should bring the benefits of
novel research and the accompanying economic development to the region, with
the promise of benefits worldwide.

Dr. Mahfouz has developed a "repair tool" (molecular scissors) made out
of protein that does two things: it finds the exact place on the genome where
it is to be cut using a genetic "postcode" and then deletes, adds or edits
the gene with great accuracy and precision.

Dr. Mahfouz's work has the potential for much broader applications
including human health. This new technology could enhance the technique that
may be used to substitute "good" genes for bad, or to cut out or silence the
defective genes that cause disease.

Commenting on the research, KAUST Provost Stefan Catsicas saw the
technology as a scientific breakthrough and, if the patent is eventually
successful, having potentially promising revenues.

Dr. Nina Fedoroff, Professor of the Life Sciences at Penn State
, said the Mahfouz paper "shows the practicability of creating
DNA-cutting enzymes tailored to cut a desired target sequence with very high
specificity. This is an excellent step forward toward creating very specific
genetic improvements in crop plants, while avoiding the potential risks many
are concerned about with more conventional genetic modification strategies.
Moreover, the paper gives the first evidence that this particular strategy
will work in plants." Professor Federoff is "delighted to see such
cutting-edge contributions emerging from a university as young as KAUST!"

Dr. Bengt Norden, Professor of Physical Chemistry at Chalmers University
of Technology in Sweden and former Chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry
commented "that it is very pleasing to see that KAUST has now produced a
breakthrough contribution in the field of life science. The work by Mahfouz
has great impact and connects with early discoveries by Nobel Laureate Sir
Aaron Klug that DNA-recognizing zinc finger proteins connected with a
nuclease function may be exploited to create, highly selectively,
double-strand breaks in DNA which initiates recombination-catalyzed insertion
of an oligonucleotide sequence with surprisingly high efficacy. The
possibility to take this DNA manipulation into clinic for "gene correction
therapy" is thus no longer only science fiction.


King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is an
international, graduate level research university located on the Red Sea.
The University is committed to advance science and technology through
transdisciplinary research in the globally significant areas of energy,
water, food and environment. The University's inaugural class of 300
master's students graduated December 2010.

For more information: Christopher Sands, Head of University Communications, christopher.sands at, +966-54-470-1201, (Dr. Magdy Mahfouz is available for interviews)

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