Domestication and breeding have created productive crops that are adapted to the climatic conditions of their growing regions. Initially, this process solely relied on the frequent occurrence of spontaneous mutations and the recombination of resultant gene variants. Later, treatments with ionizing radiation or mutagenic chemicals facilitated dramatically increased mutation rates, which remarkably extended the genetic diversity of crop plants. However, a major drawback of conventionally induced mutagenesis is that genetic alterations occur simultaneously across the whole genome and at very high numbers per individual plant. By contrast, the newly emerging Cas endonuclease technology allows for the induction of mutations at user-defined positions in the plant genome. In fundamental and breeding-oriented research, this opens up unprecedented opportunities for the elucidation of gene functions and the targeted improvement of plant performance. This review covers historical aspects of the development of customizable endonucleases, information on the mechanisms of targeted genome modification, as well as hitherto reported applications of Cas endonuclease technology in barley and wheat that are the agronomically most important members of the temperate cereals. Finally, current trends in the further development of this technology and some ensuing future opportunities for research and biotechnological application are presented.
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