Research aims to increase drought tolerance of crops through biotechnology

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John Cushman, founding professor at the University of Nevada at Reno, received a $ 1.55 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct research on improving drought tolerance and the effectiveness of l use of plant water to help maintain agricultural productivity in the face of rising temperatures and prolonged droughts.

Create drought tolerant plants

As droughts become more frequent and severe and crop productivity declines at an accelerating rate, Cushman, in collaboration with the University’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, is working on a synthetic biology approach to allow the transfer of drought tolerance traits from certain plants to field crops. The goal of his research team in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is to create drought-tolerant crops to help global food production during times of severe drought.

Specifically, Cushman and his colleague in the department, Assistant Professor Won Yim, and International Collaborating Assistant Professor Sung Lim at Sanji University, South Korea, aim to use an alternative form of photosynthesis known as metabolism. crassulacean acid (CAM). Plants with CAM and associated traits, such as agave and cactus, prevent water loss by absorbing carbon dioxide through open pores, or stomata, in their leaves and storing it as malic acid at night, because water vapor is less likely to escape the leaves in cooler, wetter nighttime conditions. During the day, the stomata remain closed while the plant uses stored malic acid and sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into sugars and starch.

Cushman combines this process with work on increasing tissue succulence in plants. Improving his team’s earlier work using Arabidopsis, or mouse-eared watercress, he uses biotechnology to increase the succulence of plant tissue by making the leaves about 40% thicker, allowing them to store more water. Plants with high tissue succulence, such as the saguaro cactus, are more suited to survival in arid climates.

Using the two traits, Cushman and his team, at the University of Nevada, Reno Experiment Station, seek to test optimized synthetic versions of CAM, both alone and in combination with the succulence of the modified tissues, in soybeans, one of the main crops in the United States. The combination of CAM and succulence, when applied to soybeans, is expected to improve productivity, water use efficiency, and drought and salinity tolerance in warmer and drier environments. .

“We have to do something about the water stress and the loss of production,” Cushman said. “We’re going to see a lot more drought and increased heat due to climate change, but we can overcome these production barriers through basic biotechnology innovation. This project is a great example of what synthetic biology can offer.

The three-year project began this spring, with work on Arabidopsis plants, testing CAM traits in combination with increased tissue succulence. After collecting these results, the team will then move on to testing synthetic gene circuits in soybean plants. If the soybean tests are successful, this engineering could potentially be used to target other vital crops, such as corn.

Train future scientists

Another objective of this work is to train graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in the conduct of CAM and tissue succulence engineering in university laboratories. As part of this project, Cushman’s lab will place special emphasis on recruiting and training historically under-represented groups. By creating opportunities for students of diverse backgrounds, the team hopes to diversify the future scientific workforce.

Cushman also collaborates with the University’s Reynold’s School of Journalism. Together with Associate Professor Kathleen Masterson and Assistant Teaching Professor Amber Walsh, he and his team are developing a new course in science communication. This course will focus on training students using infographics, interactive visualizations, and social media. The intention is to teach the next generation of scientists how to communicate complex scientific findings and biotechnology solutions to climate change more effectively to the general public.

A third component of this training goal is awareness, which will include a series of videos that will discuss the importance of creating more climate resilient crops to help showcase the societal benefits of this work.


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