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When crop engineers from around the world gathered in London in late October, their research goals were ambitious: to make rice that uses water more efficiently, cereals that need less fertilizer and uberproductive cassava powered by turbocharged photosynthesis.

The 150 attendees of the Crop Engineering Consortium Workshop were awash with ideas and brimming with molecular gadgets. Thanks to advances in synthetic biology and automation, several projects boasted more than 1,000 engineered genes and other molecular tools, ready to test in a researcher’s crop of choice. But that is where they often hit a wall. Outdated methods for generating plants with customized genomes — a process called transformation — are cumbersome, unreliable and time-consuming.

Asked what hurdles remain for the field, plant developmental biologist Giles Oldroyd of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, had a ready answer: “The big thing would be to improve plant transformation,” he said.

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