CRISPR/Cas9-Mediated Genome Editing in Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) Hairy Roots Results in the Complete Eradication of Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a medicinal plant with anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and proliferative properties. However, its pharmaceutical application is hampered by the co-occurrence of toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) in its tissues. Using a CRISPR/Cas9-based approach, we introduced detrimental mutations into the hss gene encoding homospermidine synthase (HSS), the first pathway-specific enzyme of PA biosynthesis. The resulting hairy root (HR) lines were analyzed for the type of gene-editing effect that they exhibited and for their homospermidine and PA content. Inactivation of only one of the two hss alleles resulted in HRs with significantly reduced levels of homospermidine and PAs, whereas no alkaloids were detectable in HRs with two inactivated hss alleles. PAs were detectable once again after the HSS-deficient HRs were fed homospermidine confirming that the inability of these roots to produce PAs was only attributable to the inactivated HSS and not to any unidentified off-target effect of the CRISPR/Cas9 approach. Further analyses showed that PA-free HRs possessed, at least in traces, detectable amounts of homospermidine, and that the PA patterns of manipulated HRs were different from those of control lines. These observations are discussed with regard to the potential use of such a CRISPR/Cas9-mediated approach for the economical exploitation of in vitro systems in a medicinal plant and for further studies of PA biosynthesis in non-model plants.


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