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July 27, 2009
By Mike Wolterbeek
Biochemist John Cushman is investigating how plants thrive in warmer, drier climates, which may become more widespread in the future due to global warming. The University of Nevada, Reno researcher and faculty member has received a nearly $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to continue studying the molecular genetic and biochemical pathways in the common ice plant, which improves water use efficiency up to 10 times relative to most plants.
Cushman’s research explores a photosynthetic adaptation to water limitation on molecular and biochemical levels. CAM (crassulacean acid metabolism) is a process by which plants take up and store carbon dioxide during the night and refix it slowly during the day, reducing water loss and improving the water use efficiency of photosynthesis so that plants are better able to thrive in hot, dry climates. The ice plant being used in the study is native to the Namib Desert and South Africa.
“Increased understanding of the molecular mechanisms responsible for controlling the expression and regulation of CAM will provide new knowledge about the molecular basis of this important water-saving photosynthetic adaptation,” Cushman said.
“We have begun to investigate the transcriptional regulation of CAM using micro-RNA profiling,” he said about the progress they are making in understanding how the plant’s genes are orchestrated in order to perform CAM. “This work is still in progress.”
Cushman has also integrated new technical strategies into the project, including mRNA profiling using next generation sequencing technologies, to increase the depth of knowledge about gene expression changes.
“In addition, advances in proteomics, metabolomics, and mass spectrometry have revolutionized our ability to conduct genome scale research in this type of project,” Cushman said.
“If we can get a better understanding of how this metabolic process is regulated or controlled, we might be able to someday alter the biochemistry of crop plants to make them survive with less water.” he said. “It’s a very complex metabolic process controlled by potentially hundreds of genes that will have to be well understood before this will be possible.”
The three-year $988,389 National Science Foundation grant will allow for several post-doctoral, graduate students and lab personnel to work on the functional genomics project. There are also undergraduate research training opportunities and an exhibit and teaching module to be developed for K-12, community colleges, universities and the general public for community outreach to help increase understanding of how plants adapt to harsh environments.
In an announcement earlier this month, Sen. Harry Reid said this economic stimulus package funding will ensure continued excellence in such scientific research.
“Investing in education is a cornerstone in the economic recovery of Nevada,” Reid said. “There’s nothing more important than ensuring that schools at all levels of academia have the resources they need to educate their students to the best of their ability, and in this case, encourage cutting edge research projects that enrich the lives of Nevadans and all Americans.”