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News Service

News Service:

Annette Hacker, director,
(515) 294-3720

Office: (515) 294-4777

8-25-06

Contacts:

Stephen Howell, Plant Sciences Institute, (515) 294-5267, shh@iastate.edu

Teddi Barron, News Service, (515) 294-4778, tbarron@iastate.edu

Annette Hacker, News Service, (515) 294-3720, annette@iastate.edu

Iowa State's Plant Sciences Institute funds new innovative research

AMES, Iowa -- With an eye to increasing the value of Iowa's crops, the Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State University has awarded start-up funding to eight innovative research projects at the university.

The grants were awarded to faculty researchers through a competitive program designed to stimulate excellence in plant science research. Grant amounts range between $10,000 for one year to $60,000 for two years.

Plant Sciences Institute director Stephen Howell said the projects selected relate to the institute's research initiatives in genomics, biopharmaceuticals, nutrition, biorenewables and crop protection.

"Our research initiatives target specific challenges facing Iowa agriculture and the plant bioscience industry," Howell said. "The research projects selected are extremely high quality. They promise significant advances in building a scientific foundation for future developments in crop technology."

Research is starting this fall on the projects, which are described below.

Bioenergy

  • Modern biologists have largely overlooked what some plant biologists once suspected: Oils accumulate not only in the seeds of plants, but also in the leaves. David Oliver, professor of genetics, development and cell biology and associate dean of liberal arts and sciences, will use Iowa State's state-of-the-art metabolomic and biochemical technologies to generate clear-cut data demonstrating the presence of oils in plant leaves. If found, the oils could unlock significant potential for new oil crops for Iowa agriculture.
  • A major challenge for the bioeconomy is to produce soybean crops that meet both feed and industrial non-food applications. A key to soybean crop optimization is to examine the factors that influence the carbon partitioning into protein and oil in the seed. This requires detailed understanding of the metabolism. Jacqueline Shanks, professor of chemical and biological engineering, is leading a research team that is combining metabolic flux data, which represents the flow of metabolites through a biological system, and gene chip analysis, which represents the state of a plant system at specific points in time. Together these data can reveal genes that are important for the regulation of seed composition.
  • Most biofuel in the United States is ethanol produced by fermenting starch or biodiesel from vegetable oils. It's also possible to produce biofuels from crop residues, such as corn stover, by hydrolyzing the cellulose and hemicellulose portions of biomass to simple sugars, which can be fermented to ethanol. However, corn stover is tough and isn't easily accessed by the enzymes that break it down. Ramesh Nair, associate scientist in the Plant Sciences Institute, will modify the lignin composition of corn plants to produce stover that can be converted more efficiently to ethanol. He and his colleagues will use genetic engineering techniques to produce plants with cell walls that permit more access to the enzymes used in ethanol production via fermentation.
  • Emerging industrial markets for liquid fuels derived from crop biomass could create important economic opportunities for Iowans. However, the production of biomass crops presents challenges for sustainable agriculture. Agronomy professor Matt Liebman and colleagues will investigate two alternative, sustainable cropping systems - double cropping annual species and cropping perennials - that might be used to generate large amounts of biomass while better protecting environmental quality. They also will recover nitrogen and other nutrients from grass biomass while it is processed into liquid fuel and assess the impacts of applying the recovered material back to biomass production plots.

Crop protection

  • Aphids cause yield losses by direct feeding and transmission of a variety of plant viruses. An infestation can be economically devastating to a crop. Major outbreaks caused millions of dollars of losses in Iowa in 2000 and 2003. Usually, environmentally damaging chemical insecticides are used to combat infestations. Bryony Bonning, professor of entomology, is developing a new system to manage aphids and prevent their transmission of viruses. Bonning and her research team have found a peptide that adheres to insect intestinal lining and will attempt to use the peptide to deliver biocontrol agents. Ultimately, they will transform plants with a peptide-toxin fusion that will kill the aphid and prevent spread of aphid-borne viruses in the field.
  • With the accumulation of more and more plant genome information, tools are needed to assist research on plant gene function. John Hill, professor of plant pathology, will develop and evaluate a potentially valuable tool that could help in gene function studies of soybeans. The tool is a virus tamed for silencing specific genes in soybean. His research collaborator, plant pathology assistant scientist Chunquan Zhang, recently published a breakthrough for soybean functional genomics showing that bean pod mottle virus is effective as a gene-expression and viral-induced gene silencing vector. In this project, they will further develop the technology and use it to identify genes involved in protecting soybeans from bacterial pathogens.
  • It's becoming crucial for researchers to genetically engineer soybeans with broad-spectrum resistance to protect them from pathogens. However, there's not enough scientific knowledge to develop soybean germplasms with such resistance. Madan Bhattacharyya, associate professor of agronomy, will conduct deep sequencing to identify genes that are activated following the infection of plants by Phytophthora sojae, a soil-borne fungal pathogen that causes stem and root rot. Deep sequencing involves the use of tiny microfabricated reactors that can conduct thousands of DNA sequencing reactions simultaneously. Once established, the approach could be applied to similar comparative studies in other diseases, such as Asian soybean rust and soybean cyst nematode.

Nutrition

  • Corn protein lacks complete nutritional value for humans due to low levels of the essential amino acids lysine and tryptophan. Yet corn is a primary staple for humans in many parts of the developing world, and is projected to become the dominant cereal crop in the world by 2020. Improving the nutritional value of maize has long been a goal of plant breeders and, more recently, of the biotechnology industry. In 2000, two plant breeders received the World Food Prize for their discovery of the modifier genes that confer grain quality on corn enriched in essential amino acids. Development of this corn worldwide, however, has been hindered by a lack of knowledge of the genetic and biochemical basis of their breakthrough findings. In this research, Clark Ford, associate professor of food science and human nutrition, will map and clone the modifier genes to provide the molecular basis for understanding their discovery.

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Stephen Howell

Stephen Howell

Quick look

Iowa State University's Plant Sciences Institute has awarded start-up funding to eight innovative research projects at the university. The projects selected focus on bioenergy, crop protection and nutrition. The grants were awarded to faculty researchers through a competitive program designed to stimulate excellence in plant science research. Grant amounts range from $10,000 for one year to $60,000 for two years.

Quote

"Our research initiatives target specific challenges facing Iowa agriculture and the plant bioscience industry. The research projects selected are extremely high quality. They promise significant advances in building a scientific foundation for future developments in crop technology."

Stephen Howell, director of Iowa State's Plant Sciences Institute