NSF awards $2.5 million for MSU plant genome research project

  • Apr 16, 2018
  • protein synthesis, rice, gene expression, Plant science, research
  • Homepage Hero, Faculty & Staff, Research, College of Natural Science, Plant Biology

Image of Kevin Childs

MSU NatSci plant biologist Kevin Childs is the principal investigator of a four-year National Science Foundation grant to investigate different species of economically important grasses. The ultimate goal is to help breeders develop improved varieties of cereals, to increase yields and to reduce inputs in farmers' fields. Photo courtesy of the Department of Plant Biology.

Michigan State University researchers received more than $2.5 million for plant genome research that includes outreach work to create a children’s exhibit at Lansing’s Impression 5 Science Center describing genes, heredity and the process of improving plant traits for agriculture.

Kevin Childs, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology in the MSU College of Natural Science (NatSci) and principal investigator, received funding support from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Integrative Organismal Systems for a four-year collaborative venture, “Transcriptional and Translational Regulation of Gene Expression by Gene Structure, Codon Usage and tRNAs in Grasses.”

The project, which begins this month and continues through March 2022, will investigate different species of economically important grasses, such as maize, rice, wheat, oats and barley, specifically focusing on gene information that determines the sequence of all proteins that are synthesized and required to allow a plant to germinate, grow and reproduce.

“As rice is a model for other cereal crops, the work that we undertake will help us to better understand the genes of other cereals, and that, in turn, will help breeders to develop improved varieties of cereals, to increase yields and to reduce inputs in farmers’ fields,” Childs said. “Rice, wheat and maize account for most of the cereal grains that are produced worldwide each year.”

The goals of the project are to understand why rice genes have their unusual gene structure; determine how that gene structure affects gene and protein expression; and apply improved understanding of the gene structure in rice to create a gene prediction program that more accurately identifies genes in the sequence of rice DNA and results in making some of the most-consumed crops healthier.

“The types of codons—three-letter codes that designate specific amino acids that make up proteins that are coded by genes—that are used in rice genes varies from gene to gene and can have a major effect on gene expression and protein synthesis,” explained Childs, who is also director of the MSU Genomics Core Facility. “Why and how codons affect gene and protein expression is not known, and this is part of what we will study with our grant.”

Childs will collaborate with MSU researchers Ning Jiang in the MSU Department of Horticulture and Yanni Sun in the MSU Department of Computer Science and Engineering, as well as with plant pathologist Yinong Yang of Pennsylvania State University and Cyrus Miller at the Impression 5 Science Center in Lansing, Mich.

Jiang will be testing existing hypotheses about the evolutionary processes that caused rice genes to obtain their unusual gene structures. Sun will oversee a student who will write a new gene prediction program that will account for the unusual codon usage in rice genes, which, in turn, will lead to more accurate predictions of gene structure in rice. Yang will work on transforming rice with genes that are modified to have altered structure, and on codon usage to help test how changes in the gene code affect expression of genes in rice.

About $500,000 of the grant will be allocated to the outreach portion of the project at Impression 5 for the hands-on exhibit, which is expected to take at least a year to build, and will have both a permanent display at the museum and a mobile component for museum staff members to use when they travel to schools, science fairs and similar events throughout mid-Michigan. 

“The exhibit and education team members at Impression 5 Science Center are thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with the MSU College of Natural Science in the development and creation of an interactive exhibit exploring the plant genome research being performed on campus,” said Erik Larson, Impression 5 Science Center executive director. “This community outreach grant component will allow guests visiting Impression 5 to explore this research and understand how it will impact their lives. We look forward to building a strong and meaningful partnership, and we are grateful for being recognized as a strategic resource for STEM education.”


Banner image: Varieties of rice grains--modern, traditional and wild relatives of rice. Photo courtesy of the International Rice Research Institute.