U gets $3 million in grants for plant genetics research

by Amy Olson

Four University projects in plant genetics received the largest grant from the National Science Foundation ever awarded to the departments. The $3 million grant will help unlock the mysteries of plant life.
By understanding a plant’s genetic makeup, researchers might be able to respond to agricultural crises like plant disease by creating resistant varieties, said Ron Phillips, a Regents’ professor in agronomy and plant genetics.
That research might also be used to create more nutritious foods and find new uses for existing crops, while the techniques for mapping the genome could be transferred to other species — including humans.
With 25 percent of the state’s economy dependent on agriculture and agribusiness, disease-resistant varieties and new uses for crops could mean better economic opportunities for Minnesota farmers.
The foundation allocated $85 million in grants over the next five years to researchers working on 23 projects in plant genetics all over the country. Most projects are spearheaded by one university, with assistance from others.
The University’s share will be split between four plant genome projects, including plant biology professor John Doebly’s study of corn’s evolutionary genomics — the study of an organism’s entire genetic makeup.
Phillips and Howard Rines, an agronomy and plant genetics professor, received about $1.8 million to map out the entire genetic structure of corn.
The knowledge will allow scientists to refine their ability to modify hybrids that allow them to study the staple crop, one chromosome at a time. Corn has 10 chromosomes.
Their success has eliminated several steps needed to produce a corn hybrid — from six to eight generations to one.
Rines and Phillips have been able to isolate individual chromosomes and identify the location of genes. Phillips said they hope to reduce the time it takes to identify genes from a few years to a day.
Nevin Young, a plant pathology professor, said the foundation’s funding is part of the national effort to increase knowledge in plant genomics. Young said genomics includes the technology that makes it possible to study an organism’s entire genetic structure all at once.
About 10 years ago, the National Research Council and other organizations discovered that most of the research in plant genetics lagged behind and was being conducted by private industry. Congress, university administrators and scientists agreed on the need for publicly funded research. The National Science Foundation, which supports scientific research and education, received partial federal funding for grants.
The foundation’s initiative culminated in aggressive public efforts to understand and apply knowledge of plants and their genetic structures, Young said.
Even three years ago, doctoral students studied and published their research on one specific gene, he added.
“The one-gene, one-post-doc paradigm doesn’t exist anymore,” he said.
Young is working on two of the foundation-funded projects at the University, including a new genomics tool for soybeans.
He is also working with University plant biologist Steve Gantt, agronomy and plant genetics professor Carroll Vance and plant pathologist Deborah Samac to study what genes do in a legume called barrel medic, an alfalfa-like crop native to Australia. Gantt said that plant will help researchers understand more complex crops like alfalfa and soybeans, which have more genes and are more difficult to study.
Young and Phillips said these grants are probably the largest their departments have ever received. Young added the researchers probably would not have been able to secure those grants without prior funding for research from the University, the agricultural experiment station and private industry and organizations, like the Minnesota Corn Grower’s Association.