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Plant power: How UGA plant geneticists are tackling the climate crisis

A researcher in a lab coat and blue gloves holds up a tube containing a plant specimen.
Plant genetics research at the 香港管家婆资料免费大全 spans schools, departments, disciplines, and centers. From the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) to Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, the Plant Center to the Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics & Genomics and more, UGA faculty with genetics expertise are seeking plant-based solutions to societal challenges. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker)

With record-breaking temperatures and extreme weather escalating, the threats posed by climate change are intensifying. But the plants of tomorrow鈥攕mall and humble though they might be鈥 could help us meet the massive challenges of our warming planet.

Plant genetics research at the 香港管家婆资料免费大全 spans schools, departments, disciplines, and centers. From the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) to Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, from the to the and more, UGA faculty with genetics expertise are seeking plant-based solutions to societal challenges.

Some of these faculty are conducting studies at the cellular level, while others investigate plants as whole organisms. Still others are exploring how epigenetics shape entire ecosystems. And while a number of UGA geneticists prioritize fundamental discovery, others are partnering with breeders or with industry to bring new crops and plant-based products to market.

Together, these faculty share a passion for plants鈥攁nd an optimism about the power of plants to help us adapt to a changing climate.

鈥淲e鈥檙e spread out all over campus,鈥 said , UGA Foundation Professor of Plant Sciences and the Lars G. Ljungdahl Distinguished Investigator of Genetics. 鈥淏ut we all speak the same language.

鈥淲e鈥檙e all looking for solutions.鈥

Tracking epigenetic changes in native ecosystems

Schmitz likes to tell people that he鈥檒l work on any plant that has DNA鈥攚hich is all of them, of course. 鈥淥ur questions are broader than any particular plant,鈥 he said.

A member of the in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, Schmitz studies the mechanisms of epigenetic inheritance in plants, or how a plant鈥檚 environment influences the way its genes operate. 鈥淭he genome is the same in all cells, but the way that genome is interpreted can change depending on the external environment, such as factors like an infection,鈥 he said. 鈥淲e try to understand how these events lead to changes in gene regulation both within and between plant species.鈥

Bob Schmitz smiling at the camera in his plant lab.
Professor Bob Schmitz studies how environments influence the way a plant鈥檚 genes operate. (Photo by Peter Frey)

Members of , working in partnership with international researchers, discovered that rare changes to DNA methylation (or chemical modifications to DNA) can spuriously occur over generations of plants. They then found that they could use those multi-generational changes, which 鈥渢ick鈥 at a constant rate, to determine plant divergence time, whether over the lifespan of long-lived plants such as trees or between different plant populations.

The information provided by this epigenetic clock, Schmidtz says, includes data relevant to the timing of invasive species introduction and the impact of human activity on native environments. These insights could prove useful for understanding how plant populations migrate, expand, or contract due to a changing climate.

鈥淲e鈥檙e now working with ecologists to track how plants in their native environment respond a changing climate,鈥 Schmitz said. 鈥淭he discovery of an evolutionary epigenetic clock provides a new tool for dating divergence times between populations of plant species. It can even make predictions about how population sizes are increasing or decreasing due to human disturbance or climate change.鈥

Schmitz cites UGA鈥檚 legendary strength in plant genomics as a draw for researchers. 鈥淥ne reason I came to UGA is because they have such strength in assembling plant genomes for numerous and diverse crops,鈥 he said. 鈥淭he peanut genome came out of UGA. So did cotton, sorghum, poplar, maize, and many more鈥攖hese are all major achievements. These efforts make it easy for labs like mine to work across diverse plant species and disciplines.鈥

Passing along fundamental genetic discoveries to research partners along the basic-to-applied continuum is something UGA does well, says , distinguished research professor and head of the in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. He notes that the broad intersectionality of plant research has become a signature strength of the university.

鈥淭here are intentional mechanisms in place to help bridge gaps between units,鈥 Burke said. Programs like the Plant Center and the break down barriers that might otherwise separate researchers. 鈥淲e have ways to work together here. That鈥檚 critically important.鈥

From plants to powerhouses

While some UGA plant geneticists pursue fundamental discovery, others are bridging the gap between basic and applied research. From to and within the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, these faculty members are helping transform crop plants, native species, and the future of bioenergy for a changing global climate.

Robin Buell holds a potted plant
Robin Buell, professor and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar Chair in Crop Genomics, investigates the genome biology of plants and plant pathogens. Currently, her research focus is on poplar. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski)

As the Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar Chair in Crop Genomics, uses comparative genomics, bioinformatics, and computational biology to investigate the genome biology of plants and plant pathogens. While her subjects have ranged from rice and potatoes to maize, switchgrass, and medicinal plants, she currently studies poplar. Buell is the principal investigator on a to genetically engineer poplar trees (Populus sp. and hybrids) for biofuel production and other uses. The grant also includes studies by UGA scientists , , Schmitz, and

Poplar has strong potential to provide an alternative to petroleum-based products, Buell explains. 鈥淚t鈥檚 so fast growing, it’s almost a weed. You can grow it almost everywhere. You don鈥檛 have to grow it on prime land,鈥 she said. Her team will use state-of the-art biotechnology tools to breed the trees as a multipurpose crop.

鈥淲e鈥檝e been able to do genetic engineering for the last twenty years, active breeding for even longer,鈥 Buell said. 鈥淏ut those developments have been incremental, not substantial.鈥

This project has a more audacious goal.

鈥淟et鈥檚 reinvent this tree,鈥 she said. 鈥淟et鈥檚 take Humpty Dumpty, let鈥檚 break him, and let鈥檚 put him back together again, but in a more intelligent way鈥攁nd faster.鈥 The redesigned poplars will be fabricated through an intensive process that begins with measuring mRNA transcripts and includes mapping gene function throughout the tree. The end result could provide an alternative fuel for jet engines, among other sustainable products.

Buell also directs the Plant Center, where she helps convene experts across campus and from visiting institutions to study plant science across disciplines. 鈥淭here鈥檚 terrific diversity of expertise at UGA in plant genetics,鈥 she said. 鈥淲e really have it all here. And the culture of the institution permits people to do collaborative work. The culture helps us find solutions to the problems we鈥檙e facing.鈥

Wayne Parrott
Distinguished Research Professor Wayne Parrott focuses on development and use of biotechnology to help with conventional plant breeding. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker)

Wayne Parrott, distinguished research professor of crop and soil sciences, calls his area of investigation 鈥淏iotechnology 2.0.鈥 An internationally renowned geneticist, Parrott has spent more than 35 years at UGA leveraging tools to help new soybean varieties and investigating the environmental and human safety of genetically modified crops.

鈥 focuses on the development and use of biotechnology applications to help out with conventional plant breeding and plant improvement,鈥 he said. 鈥淏ut there鈥檚 a lag between what people want to do and what people are able to do.鈥 His team is closing that gap by developing biotechnology applications to help strengthen conventional crop plant breeding and improvement.

鈥淲e have a first generation of genetically modified crops that have been out there for about 25 years and have really changed how agriculture is done,鈥 Parrott said. 鈥淏ut that all involved simple traits. Now, we鈥檙e moving on to more complex traits鈥攁nd multiple traits at the same time.鈥 The results of these new applications, he predicts, will be dramatic.

鈥淭he next generation of crops is going to be as different from today鈥檚 crops as an iPhone is from the original flip phones that came out 20 years ago,鈥 he said.

Parrott directs the , where researchers from multiple disciplines develop new crop varieties and conduct studies to understand the genetic traits of plants important to agriculture and humankind. He credits the institute with helping bring together plant genetics experts from all positions along the research pipeline. He also credits the new program with raising UGA鈥檚 national profile and bringing some of the top graduate students in the country here to study.

Esther van der Knaap, smiling, poses for a photo inside a greenhouse.
Distinguished Research Professor Esther van der Knaap coordinates the Integrated Plant Sciences graduate program, a central access point for prospective students to plant and fungal research at UGA. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski)

That graduate program is coordinated by , distinguished research professor of horticulture in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. She describes Integrated Plant Sciences as a central access point for prospective students to plant and fungal research across UGA. The curriculum allows students to undertake rotations in their first year to determine the best fit for their research interests, whether bioinformatics, ecology, genetics, breeding, biochemistry, or some combination.

鈥淭his type of program is something I dreamed about at my previous institution, but it wouldn鈥檛 have been possible,鈥 van der Knaap said. 鈥淎t UGA, it was possible.鈥

Van der Knaap鈥檚 own research involves tomato foodshed. At the , which supports the development, application, and commercialization of new technologies to genetically improve crops, the studies variations in tomato fruit quality, from shape and size to taste. The latter trait is closely connected to aroma and especially important for fresh market tomatoes. Van der Knaap鈥檚 team is collaborating with food scientists, breeders, and biochemists at UGA and at the University of Florida to identify genes that cause variations in the flavor profile of tomato as they became domesticated over time, from fully wild to what we buy in grocery stores today. Certain ancestral varieties, she says, produce highly flavorful tomatoes but are not suitable for commercialization鈥攐wing to low yield or a less-than-ideal appearance, for example.

The resulting information about genes that improve flavor can be used by breeders to develop tastier tomatoes for the market.

鈥淥ur focus is on capturing the genes that control fruit quality traits in tomato,鈥 she said. 聽鈥淲e also investigate the genetic diversity of these genes that, collectively, offer knowledge to breeders in both public and private sectors.鈥

鈥淲e鈥檙e in this together. I like to plan; I鈥檓 a planner by nature, but you can鈥檛 always know what will come next. Sometimes you have to adapt. We鈥檙e finding a way forward together.鈥

鈥 Bob Schmitz, UGA Foundation Professor in Plant Sciences and Lars G. Ljungdahl Distinguished Investigator in the Franklin College of Arts & Sciences

Engineering adaptation

A new frontier in plant genetics research is high-throughput phenotyping, a type of genetic screening that uses cutting-edge technologies to generate data about large plant populations such as a crop field or forest. , assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a specialist in high-throughput phenotyping, says that these new technologies could help researchers, breeders, farmers, and forestry officials make decisions in real time to support and protect the plants they oversee.

Portrait of Guoyu Lu
Assistant Professor Guoyu Lu works to develop artificial intelligence algorithms for plant scientists, capturing and generating data on specific genetic traits with large plant populations. (Photo courtesy of the Institute for Integrative Precision Agriculture)

Lu comes to this work with a track record of engineering innovation. Before joining the UGA faculty in 2022, his career included positions as a research scientist on autonomous driving at Ford and a computer vision engineer at the Disney ESPN Advanced Technology Group. His projects have attracted the interest and investment of Ford, GM, Qualcomm, Tencent, Mackinac, and more.

鈥淚 work on the AI side,鈥 Lu said. 鈥淚鈥檓 an AI scientist, but I鈥檓 developing algorithms for plant scientists.鈥

Using computer vision and robotics, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drone technology), are capturing and generating data on specific genetic traits within large plant populations. The information they gather includes root structure, height, disease state, and more鈥攁ll collected without harming the plants themselves.

Currently, Lu is working to build an AI algorithm that is one-size-fits-all鈥攁 multi-purpose tool suitable for gathering genetic data on many different plants across multiple populations. He wants that tool to be accessible to anyone who needs it in the field, especially as extreme weather patterns intensify.

鈥淢y work uses UAV to estimate the 3D structure models of both crops and forests,鈥 he said. 鈥淭he 3D structures can provide height, coverage, and other information. This data can be used to estimate growth, carbon dioxide absorption, impact on the environment, and more.鈥

Long term, this tool could help guide decision making鈥攈elping make recommendations about fertilization needs, for instance, or prescribed fire, or water flow and usage during a drought.

鈥淭his type of method could potentially be extended to satellites,鈥 Lu said, 鈥渢o support measurement in the state and across the country. The goal is to provide a tool that is usable by all.鈥

An ecology of collaboration

Plant genetics at UGA begins and ends with partnerships. Researchers have forged ties across disciplines and schools, with strong collaboration from field sites and with sustained support from leaders and partners across Georgia and beyond.

鈥淲e have some of the top researchers in the world right here at UGA,鈥 Burke said. 鈥淎nd the work is going on across the spectrum.鈥

The race to adapt to a changing climate is on鈥攁nd these scientists are leading the way, with bold inquiry and deep appreciation for the plants they have dedicated their professional lives to understanding and championing.

鈥淲e鈥檙e in this together,鈥 Schmitz says. 鈥淚 like to plan; I鈥檓 a planner by nature, but you can鈥檛 always know what will come next. Sometimes you have to adapt. We鈥檙e finding a way forward together.鈥