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In February, Semilla Nueva launched its first gene editing project with scientists at the University of Wisconsin. This technology could transform Semilla Nueva’s ability to scale biofortified maize.

“Imagine a pair of tiny precision scissors that allow us to insert a gene for nutrition into the DNA of a maize variety known for its high yields and climate resilience,” explains Enrique Kreff, Semilla Nueva’s Breeding Director. “Gene editing tools like CRISPR allow us to make these changes at the exact location in the plant’s DNA where a desired trait, such as Zinc or Iron content, is located. This approach can bypass years of traditional breeding, making it much cheaper and faster to biofortify any maize seed for any part of the world.”

Enrique explains that since our use of gene editing will involve minor genetic modifications, the resulting seeds will be considered non-GMO.

Until now, Semilla Nueva has relied on a conventional breeding approach called “backcrossing,” through which a desired trait in one variety (such as Zinc content) is introduced into another with desired characteristics (such as high yield) through successive generations of planting, selection, and replanting. This process requires up to seven years and can cost as much as $100,000 per hybrid released. CRISPR could reduce the time and cost to a year and $10,000, respectively. 

According to Semilla Nueva’s Executive Director, Curt Bowen, “Gene editing could be a real game-changer for us, making it possible to quickly and inexpensively biofortify the best possible seed for any location in the world.”

While its potential is exciting, the use of CRISPR in maize breeding, especially for nutritional improvements, is still relatively new. Enrique explains, “The first step of our three-year project focuses on looking at 15  genes we’ve identified as potentially responsible for improving nutritional content in maize. From there, we’ll select between 4 to 6 of the most promising genes and use CRISPR to biofortify maize developed by the Government of Guatemala for highland regions and well as other seeds for Central America and Africa.”

We look forward to keeping you updated on our progress!

“If you give me a fish, you have fed me for a day. If you teach me how to fish you have fed me until the river is contaminated or the shoreline seized for development. But if you teach me to organize then whatever the challenge I can join together with my peers and we will fashion our own solution.”

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Guatemala has the highest rate of malnutrition in the western hemisphere, and fourth highest in the world. Lack of a diverse diet as well as reliance on corn tortillas, a nutritionally incomplete staple, have contributed to this public health crisis. Because of this reality, over half of children under age five in Guatemala are expected to experience stunted growth. Five years ago, the thought of our communities being in the forefront of groundbreaking research in a national effort to curb malnutrition was only a speck of our imagination, today it is a reality.

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“Uniting efforts” is not as easy as it may seem. This phrase represents the challenge of integration and collaboration that was presented to five communications coordinators who met at the International Center of Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia, from October 1st-3rd 2014.

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