Charles Underwood
Charles Underwood

Interview with Charles Underwood, new professor of Plant Genome Engineering

In November 2023, Charles Underwood started working at the Radboud Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences as a professor of Plant Genome Engineering. In this interview, you can read more about his research interests and his plans here at Radboud University.

Field of research 

“Broadly speaking, my field of research concerns two areas: plant reproduction and plant biotechnology. In plant reproduction, we are interested in understanding how exactly plants reproduce and how they recombine their genetic information from one generation to the next. I have been focusing on tomato and related wild species as a research model system to understand how chromosomes pair and recombine during meiosis.

Tomato as model system

“Using tomato has the benefit that it is a classical genetic model system, and also it’s an important crop species. Principally we choose this model because of it’s possibilities for fundamental research, yet it has the key benefit that any discoveries we make can also be applied in breeding. The greenhouse staff and researchers here at Radboud University already have a lot of experience growing and researching tomatoes, and also have the appropriate equipment, so that is a very useful platform for our research group.”

To shuffle or not to shuffle?

“The second area of my research concerns biotechnology and is aimed at how we can use the fundamental findings on reproduction for application in plant breeding. One thing I worked on in the past is how to increase the amount of genetic ‘shuffling’ that happens during meiosis. And we have also looked at the opposite: how can we remove the genetic shuffling completely so plants can reproduce clonally? The idea behind this is that once you’ve done enough shuffling and you have generated a hybrid variety with the best characteristics, then it would be nice to clonally reproduce it and keep it exactly the same. This would essentially be like printing newspapers - when you have the finalized version then you want to just make many, many copies of that.”

Observing, mutating and sequencing

“To do this kind of research, we work a lot with microscopy, and the General Instrumentation (GI) at this faculty offers good facilities for that. In order to carry out genetic research we use genome editing, such as CRISPR-Cas9, to make targeted mutations as many of the other teams here at RIBES do in plants and animals. Much like the colleagues in the Microbiology department, I use genomics – DNA sequencing – and bioinformatics to sequence and assemble genomes. We have recently used long read DNA sequencing to generate one of the most complete sequences of the cultivated tomato genome. This was a nice example where we could provide fundamental information on how tomato chromosomes are structured, and also generate useful information for breeders on how modern tomatoes were improved to become disease resistant. I’m looking forward to working with these techniques with colleagues across the institute and faculty.”

ERC project: Asexual Embryo

“I am in the process of migrating my ERC Starting Grant to Radboud University. The ERC project is mostly focused on the second aspect of my biotechnology research that I mentioned: clonal reproduction. Just like humans, most plant species reproduce by sexual reproduction where half of the genetic material comes from the mother and half comes from the father. But some plant species, including dandelions, citrus and mangos, have abandoned sex and can produce seeds that contain genetic material from the mother alone. These clonal seeds arise by a process called apomixis.

“In nature, apomixis allows clonal transmission of favorable, hybrid genotypes through seeds over unlimited generations. Yet in agriculture new hybrid seeds must be recurrently produced on an annual basis at high cost. Being able to understand and use apomixis in crops would eradicate the need to continuously re-make hybrids by crossing.”

Looking ahead

"Looking ahead, my goal is to establish a long-term research line here where we address fundamental questions in reproduction biology, as a foundation for generating new biotechnologies useful in crop breeding. My expertise in plant biology and biotechnology will also become part of the Biology curriculum, with some new topics in the Bachelor and a new Master’s programme on biotechnology.

"The colleagues here at the institute have given me such a warm welcome, and I look forward to meeting more of them and collaborate also with the other departments. I’m very excited about seeing more of the current research and facilities, and where we can maybe complement each other."