A $1.45 million NSF grant to fund new research into how grasses thrive in dry climates

A $1.45 million NSF grant to fund new research into how grasses thrive in dry climates

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Microscopic pores on the surface of plants, called stomata, allow plants to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and facilitate the transfer of water from their roots to their leaves where water vapor exits through the pores. In general, the pores open during the day, when the plant uses sunlight and carbon dioxide in photosynthesis, and close at night to conserve water. Not only are these processes vital to plant health and survival, they are also key drivers of global carbon and water cycles, according to Penn State biology professor Charles Anderson, who has received a $1.45 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study how to improve these processes.

Grasses—including staple food crops like wheat and corn—have evolved specialized stomata that can open and close more quickly. Researchers believe that the fast-acting stomata found in grasses may help them use water more efficiently, which in turn may allow them to colonize drier environments, such as the Great Plains of North America. The researchers said understanding the cellular and biomechanical changes that allow these specialized stomata to function could help develop drought-resistant crops, a crucial step to ensuring food safety for growing numbers of people as the climate warms and becomes unstable. .

“How these stomata open and close has implications for a plant's ability to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is important for addressing global climate change,” Anderson said. “It also has implications for the ability to grow herbs – including food crops – under water-limited conditions. When we learn how these stomata work, we can develop plants that produce 'more yield per drop' and capture more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.” ”

Anderson leads research into the structure and function of stomata in grasses, bringing together a multidisciplinary team that includes James Z. Wang, distinguished professor of information science and technology, and Hujai Yi, assistant research professor of agricultural and biological engineering, at Penn State. ; as well as collaborators Deborah Petrick of Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, and Joseph Turner of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Grasses belong to the group of flowering plants known as monocots—named after the single embryonic leaf that develops in their seeds—and have four-celled stomatal complexes. Stomata in dicots, a different group of flowering plants that develop two embryonic leaves, are surrounded by only two cells.

“We have mostly studied stomata in dicots in our previous research,” Anderson said. “This new grant will allow us to apply many of the lessons we have learned studying dicots to develop a better understanding of how stomata work in monocots.”

The researchers have identified three main goals for the research supported by the grant. First, they will measure and model how the components that make up the cell walls of the four cells in grass stomata enable these cells to expand and contract to open and close the stomatal pores. They will then evaluate how cell walls contribute to the rapid stomatal response in grasses by experimentally manipulating the cell wall structure in these cells. Finally, they will apply what they have learned to design and test grass stomata while enhancing flexibility, responsiveness and dynamic range to improve water use efficiency and photosynthesis.

“I am excited that, with this grant, we will be able to purchase and use the LI-COR instrument,” said Laila Jaafar, a doctoral student working with Anderson and whose thesis research is supported by the grant. “LI-COR measures gas exchange and chlorophyll fluorescence in leaves and will allow us to evaluate photosynthesis and water use at the whole organism level. This will give us a better understanding of how our experiments affect plant physiology. Working with an interdisciplinary team on this project has been very fruitful,” It is a great environment for me to develop as a scientist.

In addition to training doctoral and master's students, the grant will provide hands-on experience for undergraduates in the Penn State Department of Biology's First-Year Research Initiative (FRI). The FRI is a two-semester series of laboratory courses that give students real-world research experience and connect them with faculty in the Eberly College of Science. As part of its education and outreach mission, the grant will also support a senior course-based undergraduate research experience, known as CURE, taught at Northeastern State University, high school outreach and research mentorship conducted by the Penn State team, and a summer program at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, provides hands-on training and enrichment in bioengineering to middle school students.

“We are excited to continue working with students at multiple stages of their education, not only because it is a great experience for them, but also because of the great ideas and new perspectives they bring to the work,” Anderson said. “It is truly a win-win scenario. We are mentoring and hopefully inspiring a new generation of science-literate scientists and citizens while our research benefits from their intellectual contributions.”

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