MSU ag, biotech research yields new technologies

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With results that run from rust-resistant wheat to glowing rodent cartilage to super fluorescent fruit flies, researchers at Montana State University have developed new technologies in the areas of biotechnology and agriculture that are patent-pending and available for licensing.

In MSU’s College of Agriculture, researchers have developed rust-resistance in wheat, which could offer a solution to a spreading pathogen that has already destroyed crops in Africa and Asia. The non-genetically modified trait that has been re-created in varieties of wheat has shown resistance to a pair of rust strains – Ug99 and Yr27 – that have emerged in recent years. MSU has a patent pending.

Globally the three types wheat rust – stem, leaf and stripe rust – are the most economically damaging diseases that attack wheat. Epidemics often inflict heavy losses, sometimes wiping out 60 percent of a given crop. The development of rust-resistant varieties of wheat is estimated to have saved more than $1 billion annually over more than four decades.

In another effort, a research team in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology working in the technology class known as CRISPR has found a novel way to turn genes on and off, which could lead to groundbreaking technologies in medical science and the pharmaceutical industry, as well as in the production of food and biofuels. MSU has a patent pending.

CRISPR-based genetic engineering tools are a recent breakthrough for controlling multiple gene functions in a range of plants, microorganisms, fungi and animals. Based on a genomic anti-viral defense response discovered in certain single-cell organisms, CRISPR stands for the DNA sequences featuring “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” that scientists have shown can be harnessed to target and destroy or activate specific genes in cells.

Based on a rapidly emerging area of genetic research that only began to take shape in 2011, CRISPR-based technologies offer gene-editing methods that cost less, take less time and are easier to use than other genetic engineering techniques.

In an important breakthrough, the MSU CRISPR sequence is different because it limits the effect on non-targeted genes, something that has proved to be a challenge to geneticists. The MSU technology has also shown an ability to control multiple selected genes simultaneously.

These abilities have promising applications for virtually any kind of genetic engineering and hold special potential for studies of disease, the development of antibiotic, anti-viral and anti-cancer drugs, the development of high-value, disease-resistant food and biofuel crops, among other areas of interest.

Another technology features a new way to test the effectiveness of drugs in treating osteoarthritis and other joint-degrading diseases. A team of engineering and immunology researchers developed a mouse with luminescent cartilage in its knees.

The cartilage genes of the mouse have been modified to include a firefly gene so that the areas affected by testing of osteoarthritis therapies light up and offer quantifiable data on changes to that cartilage. Previous methods for testing in mice have been limited because studying effects on mouse cartilage required researchers to euthanize the mouse. Other techniques also require expensive imaging equipment such as MRI. MSU’s luminescent mouse model addresses these issues, allowing researchers to measure effects to mouse cartilage over time, noninvasively and through direct observation.

Given that 27 million people in the U.S. and 250 million worldwide suffer from this most common form of arthritis, MSU’s new mouse technology comes amid ever-increasing efforts to develop treatments, and it solves a major bottleneck found by those researching drug therapies for osteoarthritis.

The new mouse model has been successfully bred and a patent is pending.

Researchers in MSU’s Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience have discovered a way to multiply the brightness of a fluorescent protein that has been used in tests on fruit flies. By cloning six fluorescent proteins into a Drosophila fruit fly, researchers were able demonstrate a dramatic increase in brightness that is visible to the naked eye.

Because many important biotechnology discoveries depend on the ability of researchers to observe cellular responses to environmental changes – how a cellular function is related to a specific disease – researchers use fluorescent proteins to report genetic response to different stimuli, such as drug compounds. 

Since the effectiveness of commercial fluorescent proteins has been limited by how brightly they show their fluorescense, MSU’s new technique for improving their brightness should be of interest to the biomedical industry. The method should be effective for a broad range of research organisms such as mice, worms, bacteria, zebrafish and flies. MSU has a patent pending.

MSU currently has 229 licenses on technologies developed by faculty. Of those, 72 licenses are with Montana companies.

The MSU Office of Technology Transfer has an application that will automatically alert people to new technologies. To sign up MSU Tech Alerts click the link at the bottom of the Office of Technology Transfer Office website or visit

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