"GO GREEN!" NSF-funded research collaborations advance crop quality

Published March 17, 2016

(L to R): MSU College of Natural Science researchers Rob Last, Dean DellaPenna and Hideki Takahashi are among several MSU scientists whose work is funded through the NSF Plant Genome Research Program.

Three MSU scientists whose work is funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Plant Genome Research Program (PGRP) are taking “GO GREEN!” to the next level. The national program supports large-scale genomics research, primarily for plants of economic importance—including food crops, fiber crops and trees.

“A unique feature of the NSF PGRP is the interest in funding large, collaborative projects across multiple labs,” said Robert Last, MSU Barnett Rosenberg Professor in biochemistry and molecular biology and University Distinguished Professor. “The program makes multi-million dollar awards that allow multiple groups to work together to do big, cutting-edge research in genomics.”

Last and three collaborators have received $7.7 million from PGRP since 2006. Last’s lab studies a group of metabolites called acylsugars—insecticidal compounds made in the “hairs,” or trichomes, of cultivated and wild tomatoes. Project collaborators are biochemistry and molecular biology colleague A. Daniel Jones, Cornelius Barry in MSU’s Department of Horticulture, and a U of M researcher.

“We use a combination of genetics, genomics, analytical chemistry and biochemistry to find the enzymes in the pathway that are able to take simple table sugar (sucrose) and convert it to the full set of compounds that are made in this highly specialized cell type on the surface of leaves and stems—these trichomes,” said Last, who holds a joint appointment in the Department of Plant Biology. “These small molecules are part of the plant's arsenal for defense against biological and environmental stress and include compounds that contribute to flavors, aromas and medically important drugs.”

Hideki Takahashi, an MSU biochemistry and molecular biology assistant professor, along with three researchers at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., recently received a four-year, $3 million PGRP grant to identify and study targeted molecules—small signaling peptides (SSPs)—in a model legume species, Medicago truncatula. The objective is to identify novel SSPs that affect root and nodule development and plant-microbe interactions, with a long-term goal of boosting plant productivity and nutrient use efficiency.  

“Legumes establish symbiotic relationships with soil microbes to assimilate nutrients,” Takahashi said. “In this project, we use integrated reverse genetics approaches to identify the ‘signals’—SSPs involved in this fundamental process. The outcome of our research will have strong impact on nutrient management and genetic engineering strategies.”

Dean DellaPenna, University Distinguished Professor of biochemstry and molecular biology and MSU Foundation Professor, has been leading a collaborative project funded through PGRP. This six-year, $5.3 million grant funded in 2009 includes C. Robin Buell, MSU Foundation Professor in the Department of Plant Biology, and Purdue and Cornell researchers. The goal is to identify the genes and their most useful variants (alleles) in maize that determine the levels and compositions of essential nutrients in seed. The alleles identified can then be used in maize breeding programs to enhance the quality of food and feed derived from maize.

“Agriculture has done a great job increasing the quantity of food, but not its nutritional quality,” DellaPenna said. “That’s where this PGRP grant comes in. While this work is useful in developed countries, there is a crying need for it in developing countries.”

“Individually, none of us would be able to do this work alone,” DellaPenna added. “These large grants allow us to do science and approach problems on a scale and with a team that would not otherwise be possible.”