A team that includes University of Nebraska-Lincoln scientists is working to bioengineer a common defense mechanism that most plants develop naturally to protect against environmental stresses, such as drought, ultraviolet rays and insects.
The goal is to identify the genetic structure of a plant cuticle and create a roadmap for breeding plants with “designer” cuticles that can respond to changing climates. The work also has potential biorenewable applications for developing value-added chemicals with industrial functions.
Understanding how plants deal with stressors is important, Saha said. “Plants are a stationary organism. When they get stressed, they cannot run away from the environment. So, they have special ways of dealing with stress.”
Plant cuticles are a thin, waxy layer that provides a physical barrier between the plant and its environment, helping to protect it from stressors. Saha said the team, using corn plants as its subject, will look to use applied breeding to produce designer cuticles with protective functions.
Iowa State University is the lead institution in the $2.65 million National Science Foundation-funded project. UNL’s portion of the grant is $313,425. The University of Delaware also is a partner.
Saha will take the plant and microbe data from the lab and model pathways and build predictive models. Such computer modeling can save researchers time and resources in testing different approaches, Saha said.
In addition to breeding crops with customized cuticles that have enhanced tolerance to environmental stresses, the research also could lead to cuticle-inspired chemicals for the biorenewables industry, Saha said.
Marna Yandeau-Nelson, an associate professor of genetics, development and cell biology at Iowa State University, is leading the cross-disciplinary team that includes, in addition to Saha and a graduate student, researchers from the University of Delaware.
“If we understand what genes are required for certain compositions and what compositions of the cuticle protect against different stresses, then we have the ability to use applied breeding for the production of designer cuticles with important protective functions” Yandeau-Nelson said.
Researchers at all three institutions will help train the next generation of scientists, developing an integrated, online course and professional development opportunities for underrepresented students in STEM fields. Students who complete the course will have an opportunity to participate in a summer research cohort at one of the three universities.
This story contains information from an Iowa State University news release.