With funding from the National Science Foundation, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln biochemist is studying the mechanism by which a tall perennial grass is able to survive and thrive in low temperatures. His findings could shed light on how to maximize the potential of some of his close and economically valuable cousins: corn, sorghum and sugar cane.
Katarzyna Glowackaassistant professor of biochemistry, uses a grant of nearly $1.4 million over five years from NSFEarly career faculty development program to study how a process called non-photochemical quenching, or NPQ – a plant’s first line of defense against damage to its photosynthetic machinery – plays a role in allowing the grass, called miscanthus, to fend off cold damage. She hypothesizes that miscanthus regulates NPQ in a unique way, where dark, cool nights trigger increased protection against cell damage.
Developing a more complete picture of this process opens the door to varieties of maize, sorghum and sugar cane that are more resistant to cold temperatures, a trait that is increasingly needed as extreme weather conditions and water scarcity intensify. Once fortified against cold snaps, these crops could be planted earlier in the spring, allowing them to mature before summer droughts. They could also survive in a more diverse range of climates.
“The goal is to understand the mechanism of protection and develop guidance for developing more cold-tolerant maize, sugarcane and sorghum,” Glowacka said. “We ask the question: what is so unusual about this process that it allows miscanthus to survive cooling?”
Miscanthus, maize, sorghum and sugarcane are classified as C4 plants because they all undergo a type of photosynthesis – the ubiquitous process that turns light, carbon dioxide and water into chemical fuel for plant growth – in which the first carbon compound produced has four carbon atoms .
The majority of C4 the plants are very sensitive to cooling, which limits their geographic distribution, productivity and establishment. This is because cold temperatures slow down the enzymes responsible for photosynthesis, causing a buildup of harmful molecules, called reactive oxidative species, in plant leaves. These molecules hinder growth and damage the photosynthetic mechanism.
Miscanthus avoids this fate, but researchers don’t really understand why. Glowacka suspects the answer lies in the unique regulation of weed NPQ. Although plants need light for photosynthesis, about 75% of the solar energy they are exposed to during the day is excessive. To ensure that the extra light does not damage the photosynthetic machinery of the plant, NPQ converts it into heat and releases it.
Preliminary data from Glowacka indicate that in miscanthus, NPQ is also protective against cooling. The grass seems to regulate NPQ in an unusual way, with dark and cold nights inducing weathering NPQ process that improves photoprotection. Glowacka aims to develop a more complete picture of the chain of events that triggers this enhanced defense system.
His research approach is an innovative blend of high-throughput phenotyping, which will allow the rapid measurement of multiple miscanthus traits over a five-year period; genetic approaches, which make it possible to deepen the roles of NPQ-related genes; and redox metabolomics, in partnership with the university Redox Biology Centerwhich allows us to analyze how NPQ affects the plant as a whole. Glowacka said that, on their own, each of these approaches is pretty typical, but it’s new to bring them together in one project.
For the educational component of the project, she partners with Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska to offer summer sessions for girls ages 10-12 focused on hands-on plant science activities. She will also revamp an undergraduate course to focus on science communication skills and incorporate active learning methods.
She and members of her lab will engage the public in photosynthesis research throughout college Sunday with a science program and the Center for Plant Science Innovation’s Fascination of Plants Day.
For these outreach efforts, Glowacka said she draws on her own experiences as a female scientist and first-generation student to try to attract more students from underrepresented groups to ROD the fields.
“I hope that as a woman – and a foreign woman – who runs a lab, young female students see that they can do it too,” she said. “And with first-generation students, I want them to see that ROD professions give them the opportunity to be a citizen of the world. There is no other profession that gives you the freedom to move from place to place for scholarships and work abroad. I think it’s amazing.
The National Science Foundation CAREER The award supports pre-tenured professors who exemplify the role of teacher-researchers through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research.