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Stephen Howell, Plant Sciences Institute, (515) 294-5267
Basil Nikolau, Center for Designer Crops, (515) 294-9423
Teddi Barron, News Service, (515) 294-4778


AMES, Iowa -- A $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, Los Angeles, will help establish a laboratory for research in the new area of metabolomics in the Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State University.

The new laboratory gives Iowa State scientists the ability to employ the new tools of genomics to understand plant metabolism.

Metabolism refers to the chemical reactions by which plants use sunlight as an energy source to combine simple raw materials and produce biological chemicals. These biological chemicals are the products of agriculture.

Metabolomics research in plant and crop species holds the promise of improving food production technologies, reducing the environmental impact of agricultural practices and advancing the development of biorenewable, environmentally safe sources of industrial chemicals.

The grant, along with $1.3 million from the university, will enable Iowa State to set up and operate a world-class facility for the development and use of new, high-throughput technologies to study metabolism in plants.

"This grant is very significant to the Plant Sciences Institute because it enables us to launch a new program in metabolomics research. It's an exciting area and we're very pleased that the Keck Foundation recognizes its potential to impact the production of high quality food and feed in Iowa agriculture,"said Stephen Howell, director of the Plant Sciences Institute.

"The Keck Foundation grant will make it possible for us to use state-of-the-art equipment to identify gene functions and improve our functional view of plant metabolism," said project leader Basil Nikolau. Nikolau is professor of biochemistry and director of the Center for Designer Crops, which will oversee the lab's operation.

To identify the detailed physiological functions of the genes that comprise the entire genetic blueprint of an organism, the contribution of each gene of a genome must be determined at all potential levels of expression--mRNA, protein and metabolite.

"Iowa State's existing laboratories allow scientists to profile genome-wide expression at the mRNA and protein levels, " Nikolau said. "The new Metabolomics Research Laboratory will enable profiling at the metabolite level, giving us the ability to functionally analyze the operation of the entire genome at multiple levels."

The Metabolomics Research Laboratory will bring together three groups of Iowa State researchers: chemists with expertise in micro-chemical analysis, engineers with expertise in the development of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) devices, and plant biologists with expertise in functional genomics of plant metabolism.

"The chemists and engineers will develop enabling technologies that will be used by the plant biologists in functional genomics research," Nikolau said. "Initially, 17 faculty from eight departments will use the laboratory and collaborate on interdisciplinary research."

The new lab will impact existing research and enable research not currently possible at Iowa State, Nikolau said.

The Keck Foundation grant will be used to purchase equipment, hire a laboratory supervisor and provide "seed money" to foster collaborative, multidisciplinary research activities among the participating chemists, engineers and biologists.

The Iowa State contribution is being used to renovate the 900-square-foot space in the Molecular Biology Building, purchase equipment over the next three years and hire two faculty positions. The space is currently under renovation and will be ready for occupancy in October.

Separation and detection equipment that analyze a wide-variety of metabolites will be purchased for the Metabolomics Research Laboratory, including:
  • Chromatographic analytical equipment (gas chromatography, high performance liquid chromatography and capillary electrophoresis)
  • Detection technologies (mass spectrometry, optical detectors, fluorescence detectors)
  • Nondestructive measurement technologies (near infrared spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance).
"The unique, multidisciplinary combination of expertise that we've assembled for this project will undoubtedly generate new approaches for finding solutions to major functional genomics questions associated with plant metabolism," Nikolau said.

The W. M. Keck Foundation is one of the nation's largest philanthropic organizations, with a primary focus on medical research, science and engineering. The foundation seeks to enrich research and teaching through support for projects at the frontiers of science and engineering.


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