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University of Missouri plant genome research receives $3 million boost from National Science Foundation

National Science Foundation

The discovery was made in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana.

Columbia, Mo. —The University of Missouri recently received a boost to its plant genetics research with the receipt of three new Plant Genome Research Program awards from the National Science Foundation. The awards, which range from $600,000 to $1.5 million over five years, will support projects that further knowledge of how plant genes function and govern plants’ interactions with their environment in three economically important crops -- corn, soybean, and canola.

Gary Stacey, a professor of plant sciences, is principal investigator on a four-year, $1.5 million project to use soybean root hairs as a model system for studying cellular function in plants. Co-investigators on the project include Dong Xu and Jianlin Cheng, MU professors of computer science with expertise in bioinformatics and systems biology. Stacey, Xu, and Cheng are all investigators in the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center.

Scott Peck, associate professor of biochemistry in the Bond Life Sciences Center, is co-investigator on a four-year, multi-institutional research project that will aid in developing canola with greater tolerance to drought conditions.

James Birchler, a curators' professor of biological sciences, is co-principal investigator on a multi-institutional project to study the functional genomics of chromosome centromeres in maize.

Peck and Birchler will receive approximately $600,000 and $900,000, respectively, to support the portion of the work to be conducted at the University.

“These three new plant genome awards strengthen MU’s already competitive ranking in plant science research,” said professor John C. Walker, director of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group (IPG) at the University. His remark makes reference to the University’s recent ranking by Times Higher Education of 15th among top international educational institutions with the most influence in plant and animal sciences research reports and reviews, according to rankings. All of the investigators are members of the IPG.

The soybean project will allow Stacey, Cheng, and Xu to continue work on a system to map genes in the root hair cells of soybean. These cells are the first site of plant response to beneficial bacteria during the initial stages of nitrogen fixation or the ability to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form plants can use as fertilizer. Using a combination of genomic, proteomic, metabolomic, and bioinformatic approaches, the investigators hope to reveal the network of chemical changes in the root hair cell that lead to the successful establishment of this nitrogen fixing symbiosis. By bringing these cellular responses to light, the potential exists to both improve nitrogen fixation in soybeans as well as to move this agronomically important process to other crop plants and reduce reliance on fertilizers.

The canola project will investigate the cellular changes in guard cells in response to drought conditions. Guard cells regulate how much water and carbon dioxide pass through leaf pores (stoma). Using a combination of genomic and bioinformatic approaches, the investigators will track dynamic changes in molecules, proteins, and metabolites in these cells that regulate the plant’s reaction under low water conditions. Peck, coordinator of the grant at the University, will contribute his lab’s expertise on proteomic analyses to investigate dynamic changes in protein abundance and protein modification during these responses. The project has potentiality to improve water use efficiency and resistance to drought in crops.

Both the canola and soybean projects combine the expertise of computational biologists, geneticists, and experimental lab work to map the dynamic interactions that underlie cellular or organismal functions. The goal is to integrate the total information and provide a view of the plant’s entire response as a “system” rather than as separate pieces of information. This approach should drive predictive models that can be exploited for improving breeding strategies. Both projects will contribute new knowledge of cellular-level responses to environmental conditions, an area of growing interest.

The maize project will focus on the functionregions of DNA near the center of chromosomes involved in cell division, or chromosome centromeres. Birchler, coordinator of the project at the University, will be investigating epigenetic “marks” to maize centromeres. Epigenetics refers to changes in the expression of a gene without a change in the genome itself. Centromeres are key elements in the development of plant artificial chromosomes, a new technology that holds potential for introducing multiple traits as a single unit into crops. The research will further the development of this new technology in maize as well as guide its adaptation to other plant species.

Each project also includes training and outreach goals. Stacey’s project provides the funding for a new Freshman Research in Plant Science (FRIPS) program that involves University science students in advanced genomics research. Peck will establish a new program geared to teach undergraduate students in the sciences how to communicate their research to the public. Birchler will build on an existing collaboration with the National Autonomous University of Mexico to provide a student exchange program for students to do research in partner labs.

Established in 1998, the Plant Genome Research Program is coordinated by the Interagency Working Group on Plant Genomes of the National Science and Technology Council.