All atwitter about "a-maizing" advances

  • May 16, 2018
  • environment, Plant science, gene expression, Research
  • Homepage News, Faculty & Staff, Research, College of Natural Science, Plant Biology

Maize research taking place in a Michigan State University lab has set the social media world atwitter.


Image of Jiming Jiang
Jiming Jiang and his research team are investigating how TEs (DNA sequences that can move from one location in the genome to another) control gene expression in plants. Photo by Harley Seeley.

A paper co-authored by Jiming Jiang, MSU Foundation Professor of plant biology, about recent findings related to transposable elements in maize, resulted in 63 tweets and retweets, making it one of the most-tweeted-about research papers published in Plant Physiology.


“[Barbara] McClintock would be proud,” stated one Tweet.


McClintock, probably one of the most well-known plant scientists in history, was the first to discover transposable elements (transposons or TEs), once called "jumping genes," which are DNA sequences that can move from one location in the genome to another. Her work with TEs in maize earned her a Nobel Prize in 1983.


“TEs are a major DNA component of most plant genomes and can make up up to 80 percent of the genome in some plants. TEs are found throughout the human genome as well, but most of them are silent,” said Jiang, who shares joint appointments in the College of Natural Science’s Department of Plant Biology and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Department of Horticulture. “On rare occasions, a very small percentage, perhaps because of stress or environmental factors, could be ‘activated’ and jump into the middle of a gene. This can cause enough damage of the gene to kill you.”


In the past decade or so, Jiang said, there has been increasing evidence indicating that TEs actually play a role in regulation of gene expression.  


“Since McClintock’s discovery of TEs in the 1940s, there has been only sporadic evidence that latent, or decayed, transposon sequences can play a role in regulation of gene expression,” Jiang explained. “But we provide the first piece of evidence that this is widespread—at least in the maize genome. Our paper is probably the first global description of this finding.”


Jiang and his colleagues have recently developed a methodology that can be used to predict “cis-regulatory elements (CREs)” that control gene expression in plants. “Shockingly, nearly 25 percent of these predicted CREs in maize were derived from TEs,” said Jiang. “Promoters and enhancers are two most common classes of CREs; we demonstrated that 80 percent of the CREs derived from TEs show enhancer or promoter function.”


The researchers’ next step is to focus on a subset of the identified maize CREs to dig deeper into how TEs control gene expression.


“Our ultimate goals is to develop new plant varieties or cultivars that can thrive in various environmental conditions, such as in high temperatures or cold temperatures,” Jiang said.


“At MSU, there is a heavy focus on what we call plant stress biology—understanding how plants respond when they grow in a variety of environments. This focus could help us to understand why certain genes respond in specific situations.”


Another Twitter user summed up MSU’s leadership position in plant research: “Guess who has the top Plant Physiology article? I’ll give you a hint: It’s @michiganstateu!”


Six other researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Nanjing Agriculture University were co-authors of the paper.


Banner image: Functional validation of a cis-regulatory element (CRE) derived from decayed transposon sequences. This CRE was combined with a green fluorescent protein (GFP) gene and then transformed maize cells. Green signals are observed in most cells, indicating that this CRE can function as a promoter to control the expression of the GFP gene. Photo courtesy of Jiming Jiang.

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