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U of M researchers receive national grants to help improve agricultural productivity, grow more nutritious foods and fight devastating plant parasites

November 10, 2010

Three University of Minnesota researchers have won new research awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will help advance the world’s understanding of plants and their genes.

The U of M projects are among 28 new NSF Plant Research Program (PGRP) projects that have been awarded a total of $101.9 million to improve the nation’s ability to enhance agricultural productivity, grow nutritious foods and diminish the effects of devastating plant parasites.

The recipients are: Assistant Professor Adrian Hegeman and Gordon and Margaret Bailey Professor Jerry Cohen, Department of Horticultural Science, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, and Associate Professor Nathan Springer, Department of Plant Biology, College of Biological Sciences. Hegeman also holds an appointment in the Department of Plant Biology. All three faculty are also in the Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute at the University of Minnesota.

The PGRP projects use the techniques of modern genomics – sequencing and analyzing genetic material – to advance our understanding of how plant genes function and govern plants’ interactions with the environment in economically important crop species, including barley, corn, cotton, rice, soybean, tomato and wheat. Each project will also incorporate outreach and educational activities, engaging K–12, community college and undergraduate students and teachers, as well as the public, in plant-related activities.

Hegeman and Cohen will receive more than $1.9 million over three years for their project, “Improving the Quantity and Quality of Plant Metabolomics Information.” They will develop techniques to measure the dynamics of the metabolome, the set of small molecules that result from metabolism. Metabolomics has become an important area of research that complements and extends analysis of nucleic acids (DNA) and proteins.

Although the work will focus on rice and tomato, the methods and procedures are expected to be applicable to many plant species. The project will also organize a summer workshop in metabolomics and engage primarily undergraduate institutions as well as research-intensive universities. More information about this award is available at www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward.do?AwardNumber=0923960.

Springer and co-principal investigator Matthew Vaughn, University of Texas at Austin, will receive more than $1.6 million over three years for their project, “Maize Epigenomic Variation.” Epigenetic variation refers to heritable changes that are not due to changes in DNA but to other types of modification of the sequences, usually the addition or removal of methyl groups to the DNA.

The team will be looking at methylation patterns in maize as compared with existing datasets on genes and phenotypes. This phenomenon is not well understood but can lead to large changes in phenotype, which is important for plant breeding and crop improvement. More information about this award is available at http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward.do?AwardNumber=0922095.

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The U of M projects are among 28 new NSF Plant Research Program (PGRP) projects that have been awarded a total of $101.9 million to improve the nation’s ability to enhance agricultural productivity, grow nutritious foods and diminish the effects of devastating plant parasites. Image from Flickr.

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