A Q&A with Dr. Kan Wang

April 20, 2020

Kan Wang, professor of agronomy and holder of the Global Professorship in Biotechnology at Iowa State University, is widely recognized as an international leader in the fields of plant biotechnology, plant genetic transformation and genome editing.

Her research has ranged widely from increasing the nutritional content of corn and yam, to improving corn varieties for bioethanol production. Currently, she serves as co-director for Iowa State’s Crop Bioengineering Center, a cohort of faculty whose research focuses on using genome-editing technologies for crop improvement.

Wang’s latest award for Outstanding Achievement in Research from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences adds to her list of recognitions, including the Iowa Women of Innovation Award for Research Innovation and Leadership in 2015, Iowa State University Award for Achievement in Intellectual Property in 2017, and the same year, as a Fellow of the Society for In-Vitro Biology. She was one of the international leaders of biotechnology highlighted with her own chapter in Judith M. Heimann’s 2018 book, “Using Nature’s Shuttle: the making of the first genetically modified plants and the people who did it.” Wang’s pioneering work in understanding the DNA transfer mechanism from a bacterium to plant was considered one of the key contributions to genetic transformation technology.

Recently, we asked Professor Wang to share some reflections on her work.

How do you describe your work?

My work has always been focused on plant transformation and technology development. Much of my work has been to understand how gene transfer happens naturally in plant through infection by the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens and capitalize on that knowledge to find methods to expand its use for desirable purposes.

Basically, plant transformation is a tool to evaluate gene regulation mechanisms that influence the way plants “express” their genetic makeup -- and to use that information to produce high yielding and robust seeds or stocks for commercial purposes.

What are the biggest challenges of this research?

Genetic engineering systems are critical tools to advance crop improvement efforts in the United States and worldwide. They are revolutionizing commercial agriculture, but these tools are not easy to use. Current crop transformation processes have been limited by their high complexity and low efficiency. For corn and most crops, the processes remain arduous and rely on technologies that have significant bottlenecks, even after more than 30 years of technological advances.

One of my current areas of focus is to make these technologies more robust so they are more available to scientists around the world, many of whom do not have access to the type of resources industry often has. 

How did you get started in this line of research?

A lot of things in my career were largely accidental. I regarded my greatest strength as a writer, but I ended up as a scientist. That was due to many situations, including politics in China when I was young.

I had the incredible opportunity to work with one of the pioneers of plant transformation, Marc Van Montagu, when I was sent by my country to study in Ghent, Belgium, as a graduate student. This was not my choice, and at first, I was disappointed, because I wanted to study human genetics. But I soon became fascinated by the work there to use naturally occurring Agrobacterium to manipulate plant genomes. Marc has remained a mentor to me through the years, and in 2013, I was honored to be in attendance when he received the World Food Prize in Des Moines.

What brought you to Iowa State?

I came to Iowa from Belgium in 1989, first joining ICI Seeds (now Syngenta) located in Slater as a research scientist. I wanted to use my Agrobacterium knowledge to improve crops. A few years later, I joined ISU to establish and direct the university’s new Plant Transformation Facility, one of the first public facilities to provide crop genetic transformation services for academic researchers globally. The idea was to provide this as a centralized service, where experts could help other scientists more effectively do the job of genetic transformation for corn, soybeans and rice. Over time, the goals have expanded to make the protocols for transformation more efficient and to modify the technologies so they don’t require as much sophisticated infrastructure and highly trained technical staff to be successful.

Through working with transformation experts from both academic and industry laboratories throughout the world, I hope we can more effectively disseminate the improved technology. For example, by partnering with Corteva Agriscience, we recently created an open-access set of instructions with videos demonstrating how to transform recalcitrant corn inbred lines, which was published in the Journal of Visualized Experiments.

What drives you? What do you find most rewarding?

Training and mentoring the next generation of scientists: One thing I find most rewarding is working with graduate students and postdocs to explore new research territories and watch their growth. I was fortunate to have great mentors during my time of graduate study. I also appreciate that the success of a PI (principal investigator) is often a reflection of the hard work and dedication of the team members. I also value the wonderful opportunities to contribute to Iowa State becoming a leading biotechnology resource for the global community.

What current projects are you excited about? 

I am the lead and co-lead for a couple of grants from the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Agriculture aimed at developing more efficient genetic engineering and genome editing systems to improve corn, soybeans and other crops. Part of this work is to create, and make more widely available, enhanced crop engineering tools and biological materials for public crop genome research. Supported by NSF, we have conducted a couple of transformation/genome editing workshops in the US and in Africa.

Looking ahead, we are planning several workshops that will include transgene stewardship protocols and best practices in the responsible conduct of science as the technology continues to advance. We are planning a CRISPR genome editing training here at Iowa State for faculty and graduate students and related workshops in Belgium and the United Kingdom.

What do you see as important advances on the horizon?

We still have much work to do to optimize and simplify processes. The more we understand the biology, the better we can design the tools. On the other hand, collaboration with nonbiologists can also greatly improve efficiency. Nanotechnology, robotic techniques, machine learning and data science have been and will be playing important roles.

This work is an important investment in building capacity for the future of food production. Through this, we are putting human creativity to work to feed billions more people in the coming decades.