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Sept. 29, 2010 Volume 32, No. 6

Plant researchers go underground to root out impact of climate change


Heat and drought stress roots at hair-cell level

When people discuss climate change, they usually think of rising ocean levels, melting glaciers or disruptions in the earth’s atmosphere. Less attention is paid to the effects right under their feet.

Now, with the help of a $1.2 million federal grant, University of Missouri researchers are peering underground to see how climate change affects plant roots. Gary Stacey, professor of plant sciences and member of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group in the MU Bond Life Sciences Center, said water availability and soil temperature can influence root growth, length and extension, which ultimately impact the productivity of the plant.

Stacey and his colleagues — co-investigators Jianlin Cheng and Dong Xu — are using “advanced systems biology approaches” to determine how water and heat stress affect roots at the scale of a single root hair cell. Systems approaches are commonly used to measure effects at the whole organism or tissue level, which can dilute the contributions of individual cells.

“The root hair cell is too important to miss,” Stacey said. “Root hair cells function to increase root surface area and to mediate water and nutrient uptake.”

The researchers, using advanced genomic techniques, will follow changes in proteins, metabolites and other compounds inside the cells in response to variations in temperature and water availability. Sophisticated computational tools will be used to analyze the data and develop models to control these responses.

By gaining insight into how heat and drought influence a root cell crucial for nutrient uptake, the researchers hope to improve predictive models of how climate change will impact plants, such as soybeans.

“Useful models of climate change will require accurate, quantitative data that predict impacts of climate change across broad spatial scales, from ecosystems all the way to individual cells,” Stacey said.

Established in 1981, MU’s Interdisciplinary Plant Group is currently comprised of 51 faculty-led research teams that represent three academic divisions — biochemistry, biological sciences, plant sciences — as well as two academic departments, computer science and forestry. Integrating these disciplines stimulates joint research projects that will enhance understanding of how plants grow and develop in changing environments.

Two postdoctoral researchers will be hired to work fulltime on the climate project, Stacey said. One graduate student also will participate. The research will use extensive biological datasets derived from isolated soybean root hair cells at MU. The project is funded by the Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy program, a joint effort of the Department of Energy’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.