K-State, other universities to study how climate affects plant evolution


$5 million NSF grant to fund research effort

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Kansas State University is one of several universities that will share an estimated $5 million federal grant to study how plants respond to environmental changes and how the genetic pathways underlying their responses evolve in different climates.

"K-State is working with some of the premier labs in the world on this project, which is being funded by the National Science Foundation." said Steve Welch, professor in the university's agronomy department and the lead K-State researcher on the project. "We'll be studying ecology and genomics (genetic material) and how they interact -- it's a new area."

The research will examine how a plant's genome integrates environmental signals and evolves so that it blooms when it has the best chance to reproduce successfully, Welch said.

Plants' abilities in this regard illustrate an important capacity of many biological systems: the ability to assess multiple signals in responding to complex challenges.

The results of the project will be important for predicting how plants will respond to future climate change and will help to inform conservation management and crop improvement strategists, he said.

"Being on the forefront of the knowledge that will help feed the world of the future is not only gratifying for us personally, but also should be a real benefit for both our state and our country," said Ron Trewyn, K-State's vice provost for research.

Led by evolutionary ecologist Johanna Schmitt of Brown University, the team includes molecular biologists, evolutionary geneticists, plant modelers and computer scientists. Scientists at North Carolina State University; the University of Wisconsin; and the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, based in Tubingen, Germany, are also part of the project.

Total estimated funding to K-State through September 2009 is $1.4 million.

"It's an emerging discipline," said K-State assistant professor of biology Judy Roe.

Roe and other researchers will study the genetic processes that control flowering time under different weather conditions for the Arabidopsis thaliana, an annual weed closely related to canola and cabbage.

"If you understand the importance of natural variation in different genes, you can predict plant behavior," she said.

William Hsu, assistant professor in computing and information sciences; Sanjoy Das, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering; and Mary Knapp, climatologist for the State of Kansas will join Welch and Roe as they develop and apply the computer models that will track the gene responses in Arabidopsis plants.

Working with seven leading laboratories in Europe, the researchers will plant and study Arabidopsis at six diverse sites, ranging from subarctic locales in Finland -- which at times during the year have just three hours of sunlight -- to the Mediterranean coast of southern Spain, Welch said. Sites also will be located in Germany and England.

In addition, the K-State team is working with two private companies to build and package sensors that will be located at each of the research sites. The sensors will be capable of recording soil moisture, air temperature, relative humidity, solar radiation and photo reactivity.

The project is one of six Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research awards granted by the NSF in 2004. Total FIBR awards over the five-year period will be $30 million.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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