Kirsten JÃ¸rgensen obtained her MSc in biology at the University of Copenhagen in 1989. The focus of her Ph.D studies was the identification of auxin-binding proteins in Brassica napus. The work was carried out at the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Roskilde. Following her Ph.D. she was employed in Danisco Biotechnology, Holeby, Lolland, Denmark as responsible for the plant biotechnology R&D laboratory. This laboratory bred new varieties of sugar beet, rapeseed, sunflower, and potatoes using biotechnological approaches. The main techniques implemented were transformation, double haploid formation, and micropropagation.
In 2000 she was employed as Associate Professor at the Plant Biochemistry Laboratory, Department of Plant Biology, University of Copenhagen where her work focused on molecular breeding of cassava to achieve acyanogenic-transformed lines high in protein and vitamin content. As an expert in imaging techniques used for tissue, cell, and organellar localization of gene expression, enzymes, and enzyme activities, her network of collaborators is extensive.
She is married with three grown-up daughters, and is now a grandmother to three boys aged 1-3.
Please describe your work on acyanogenic cassava and its importance. What is the status of the research?
I first worked on cassava in 2000 when I started to work in the group of Prof. Birger Lindberg Moeller, together with part-time technician, Christina Mattson. Today, the group consists of Asst Prof. Rubini Kannangara, who takes care of the molecular biology; three technicians: Charlotte SÃ¸rensen, Evy Olsen, and Susanne Bidstrup, who assist in all aspects of this project from producing the transgenic plants, analyzing them, and helping in the greenhouse, where our gardener Steen Malmmose takes care of the plants.
The cassava group is a part of a larger group with a focus on cyanogenic glucosidesâ€”from the regulation of these compounds in the plant to their end use as a defense system. In cassava, our emphasis is now the â€œwhenâ€, â€œwhereâ€, and â€œwhyâ€ the cyanogenic glucosides are found in the plant. We also work on producing an acyanogenic cassava.
We are currently working on producing the third generation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and analyzing the second generation in the greenhouses. The first generation was based on antisense technology and the background of the transformed plants was the South American model line Mcol22. When the RNAi technology became available for downregulation (reduction) of specific genes, we used this technique to obtain second generation plants, exhibiting a more complete downregulation of cyanogenic glucoside content (second generation). Eventually we started to work with African elite lines from IITA to be closer to the product that could be used directly after testing the GMO lines in their appropriate environment. In the third generation we have been fine-tuning the downregulation of cyanogenic glucosides to assure that this takes place in the specific cells which express the enzymes involved in their synthesis.
Plants from the first generation, based on Mcol22, have limited utility for field testing as they are far from the cultivars grown today. Our focus has shifted to African lines, either those used today or promising breeding lines from IITA. By now, we have African elite lines (e.g., TME12) downregulated to contain less than 10% of the cyanogenic glucoside content in tubers measured in wild type TME12 growing in the greenhouse. Several lines are completely devoid of cyanogenic glucosides in their leaves.
Our next goal is to produce cassava lines with enhanced nutritional value. We have focused on using a storage protein from potato (patatin) and are currently transforming African elite lines with this trait provided by IITAâ€™s Dr Alfred Dixon. Two of these lines have been bred to contain an enhanced amount of carotenoids, the precursor of vitamin A. Our dream is to assemble all these traitsâ€”producing cassava that is acyanogenic and nutritious.
What are some of the important tools you use on the job? How would genetic engineering help you meet your research goals?
The tools are all the techniques currently used today in a modern, biotechnology oriented laboratory. The basic knowledge of the synthesis of cyanogenic glucosides gives us the opportunity to strengthen work for an improved cassava. Our group works with basic science, which is then converted to applied research, and ends up, for example, in new cassava lines improved by molecular breedingâ€”another word for genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is just a tool which can be used where it is difficult or impossible to achieve the improvements wanted in a variety. So far, no one has succeeded in obtaining acyanogenic cassava by classical breeding methods. Here genetic engineering comes in as an important tool.
What are some of the challenges in working on this area?
Working with a crop which has limited focus from breeding companies makes it difficult to obtain funding in a nontropical country such as Denmark. Because cassava is a tropical crop, it is difficult to mimic tropical conditionsâ€”however, we are pleased that we are able to grow the cassava plants in our greenhouse under conditions where they do produce tubers. So our data are based on measurements on real tubers.
As the scientific community working on cassava is small, we need to share knowledge. On our part we have been open in sharing our techniques. So far Dr Ivan Ingelbrecht, IITA, and Dr Sareena Sahab, Danforth Plant Science Centre, have visited us and been trained on how to carry out cassava transformation using our protocols and regeneration systems.
Who are your partners in this collaborative effort and what are their roles? Who funds the research?
Our collaborator for more than a decade has been IITA with whom our group has collaborated on various projects mostly funded by Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA). IITA has also provided important financial support. In the same period we have collaborated with CIAT, Columbia, on molecular markers for the genes encoding the enzymes involved in the synthesis of cyanogenic glucosides. A newer collaboration is with Kenyatta University, Kenya, with whom we have collaborated on the latest DANIDA project â€œImprovement of the nutritional value of cassava: high storage protein content and no cyanide liberating toxinsâ€.
In addition to the funding from DANIDA we had a project on â€œBiofortification of Cassavaâ€ funded by the Research Council for Technology and Production.
The funding and generous sharing of elite lines from IITA have strengthened the ties between our laboratory and IITA.
How would you describe the collaboration with IITA and other partners working on the project? Any insights on collaboration and partnership?
The close and fruitful collaboration with Dr Ivan Ingelbrecht and Dr Alfred Dixon has helped us a lot, for example, with respect to choosing optimal cassava lines for our transformation work. We really want to work with lines that are of value to African end users. In addition to the collaboration on producing GMO cassava, we have collaborated on the bioinformatics and logistics to design and build a cassava microarray DNA chip. Our collaborations have been very open and enjoyable. For us, it is very important to keep close contact with scientists working in an African environment. This helps us to set the right research priorities.
How would you measure the impact of your work on cassava in SSA?
Our aim is to improve the nutritional value of cassava. This includes reducing its content of cyanogenic glucoside and introducing a higher content of proteins and vitamin A precursors. In our lab we can only go as far as producing these lines and testing them in our greenhouse facilities. Although the lines behave well there, we cannot mimic real tropical conditions and cannot expose the plants to the environmental challenges they encounter when grown in African soils. So we really want to collaborate to have these lines grown in their real environment to observe how the plants behave.
Any personal information or other insights that you want to share with our readers?
Throughout my working life, the emphasis has been to produce new improved cropsâ€”both for the European market and now for the African continent in the case of cassavaâ€”using biotechnological techniques. It is important always to use the appropriate techniques to reach the goal most efficiently. I am driven by a strong desire to show that high quality basic research provides the way to obtain improved crop plants for the future.
One of my main interests is working with plantsâ€”both at work and at home, where I spend a lot of time in the garden and in our summerhouse. The rest of the time is for the familyâ€”I look forward at one point to visit Africa and especially IITA.
In my career I have wanted to use my knowledge in applied science. Tissue culture fascinates meâ€”to start from such small pieces of tissue and end up with plants in the greenhouseâ€”I am still amazed at what plants can do.