Ask CABBI’s Eleanor Brant about her research and she offers two responses — starting with the straightforward one: She optimizes and applies genome editing protocols for sugarcane and other bioenergy crops at the University of Florida.

On a more global level, though, she is “part of the race to fine-tune DNA to make the world a more sustainable and secure place.” That is the inspiration and passion driving Brant and other CABBI researchers to develop sustainable energy feedstocks that can help reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.

Eleanor Brant

A native of England, Brant entered an undergraduate program in Biology at Aberystwyth University in Wales, not knowing that a few years later she would leave with a bachelor’s degree in Plant Biology. She says there was not a particular day when she woke up and thought, “I really want to study plants,” but she quickly met people through her courses who were majoring in Plant Biology, which was a quite unusual focus in the U.K. She was immediately pulled in by their enthusiasm and chose it as a major. Ever since, everyone she meets in the field is so motivated by the work they do that it continues to augment her inspiration daily.

After graduating from Aberystwyth with her bachelor’s degree, Brant chose to continue her academic career with a master’s of research at the University of Worcester in England. The goal of her master’s research was to use CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing techniques to identify disease resistance genes (-genes) in Arabidopsis. She then spent a year at Montana State University, gaining valuable experience using CRISPR in wheat. There she met Fredy Altpeter, Professor of Molecular Genetics and Biotechnology at Florida and her future Ph.D. advisor, during his visit to her lab. Altpeter happened to be looking for a Ph.D. student to work with him on genome editing, and Brant’s experience and skills were compatible with the work he was leading at Florida. In 2019 she joined his CABBI lab, where she has focused on developing CRISPR strategies to improve sorghum and sugarcane.

The main goal of CABBI’s Feedstock Production group is to develop high-value bioenergy grasses that can produce oils and other compounds for use as fuels and chemicals. The Altpeter lab is engaged in multiple feedstock improvement projects focusing on synthetic biology and metabolic engineering approaches for hyperaccumulation of lipids and improved yield efficiency.

The lab has developed a uniquely efficient genetic transformation platform for sugarcane, which is well-suited for one of Brant’s main projects: exploring emerging CRISPR technologies, such as base and prime editing, to increase the specificity and precision of targeted gene modifications. While the vast majority of the lab’s work for CABBI focuses on genetic improvement of sugarcane, Brant works on both sugarcane and sorghum at Florida by optimizing protocols for gene editing. The primary goal is to improve the efficiency of the transformation and regeneration process, to allow researchers across CABBI and beyond to transfer strategies that already worked in sugarcane to other crops.

TOP: Brant collects leaf samples from sorghum plants in the growth chamber in preparation for DNA isolation. ABOVE: Brant is surrounded by towering sugarcane plants at Florida’s field site in October 2021.

The day-to-day work of creating sustainable energy products differs from what an outsider might expect. Brant’s time is not entirely spent in the field. A lot of background computing work must be done, from determining a target gene and designing components needed for the research to be completed, to the later stages of the project with data analysis.

Even though Brant tries to get in the greenhouse a couple of times a week to see the plants’ progress, much of her work takes place in the lab completing tasks such as making recombinant DNA constructs. This process involves developing a strategy and pipeline for the assembly of a large number of DNA pieces and verifying that the desired products are correct.

The overarching goal of the gene-editing work, at Florida and other CABBI research labs, is to produce higher-yield varieties of potential bioenergy crops. One target of the Altpeter lab is to help optimize the protocol and methods for CABBI’s target feedstocks so researchers can seamlessly transfer the tools that already worked in sugarcane. Many of the initial genome editing targets have been chosen to show very rapid visual phenotype results so researchers can identify successful edits early. Making edits that produce visual changes allowed them to optimize the editing process in a reasonable timeframe, so they can now focus with a higher efficiency on the targets to improve oil levels and yield efficiency.

One of the latest developments from Brant’s work was recently published in the Biotechnology Journal, which detailed her rapid phenotyping system work in sorghum. The lab has had similar successes editing the magnesium chelatase gene and the acetolactate synthase gene in sugarcane to obtain rapidly identifiable phenotypes.

The benefit of gene editing applications in the world of energy harvesting and feedstock efficiency is evident, but that only brushes the surface of the potential of these technologies. Brant and her colleagues hope that CRISPR and related technologies will soon become a regular part of the commercial crop improvement process. Genome editing research like that at the Altpeter lab is creating a foundation that will benefit farmers by adding value to feedstocks.

In the face of a changing global climate, there is a drive for sustainable, clean energy to reduce or reverse some of the damaging effects to the environment. Brant believes that to do this, we must first optimize protocols for crop improvement and ensure that we are producing biofuels and regular food crops as efficiently as possible. That means maximizing yields and developing crops that require less fertilizer and other inputs, tolerate drought and temperature stresses, and have the ability to grow in areas with marginal land.

Brant, left, and CABBI Investigator Fredy Altpeter (plaid shirt) work with other members of the Altpeter lab to harvest and process samples from sugarcane and energycane field trials in October 2021. A bundled sample is being weighed on the scale. All photos provided by Eleanor Brant

Brant and her colleagues believe CRISPR and genome editing can make this possible.

“Although scientists have known the climate is changing for a while, and this is public knowledge, the extent that people are aware and willing to make changes is increasing over time. Hopefully it continues to become more and more relevant in political and public agendas, and that convinces people to implement necessary changes,” she said.

At CABBI, individual labs collaborate on innovations to push its overall feedstock mission forward: providing sustainable biofuel feedstocks. Brant admires this research structure, as she has enjoyed meeting and working with people from all over the world.

“Interacting with people from different labs is amazing because I have been able to meet so many people with so much knowledge and different areas of expertise,” she said.

When she isn’t working to make the world more sustainable, Eleanor loves to get outdoors and experience Florida in its full beauty. She misses the mountains of Montana and the U.K. but has found refuge in Florida’s numerous natural cold springs, which are excellent for swimming and visiting nature. After learning to live with the hot, humid summers, she says it’s definitely a place she has come to appreciate for great outdoor weather year-round.

— Article by CABBI Communications Intern Quinn Wolski