Funding establishes Center for Root & Rhizobiome Innovation, studying how to help better feed the world

June 17, 2016

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded $20 million to a Nebraska team for five years of collaborative research on soil-plant systems, focusing at the root and rhizobiome level: to improve maize varieties’ performance to better feed the world’s growing population.

Via its Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program, this NSF grant will establish a Center for Root and Rhizobiome Innovation (CRRI) at UNL, engaging researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), University of Nebraska at Kearney, Doane University, and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Maize, or corn, is the primary subject of study, though the research aims to transfer to other crops. CRRI plant scientists, microbiologists, biochemists geneticists and ecologists will:

  1. Work together to develop a systems-level understanding of root metabolism in maize by comparative analysis of plants’ variation for predictive modeling.
  2. Quantify the chemical diversity of root exudates across maize genotypes and the impact of this diversity on rhizobiomes.
  3. Develop and implement synthetic biology tool sets for maize, to predictably alter root metabolism to: a) test hypotheses of the role of exudates on root-rhizobiome interactions and plant performance, and b) refine systems-level understanding of roots.
  4. Assess the effects of variant root exudate compositions on performance of plants and their rhizobiomes in response to abiotic stresses under greenhouse and field conditions.

Leading the grant that began June 15 is F. Fred Choobineh, Nebraska EPSCoR director and Blackman/Lederer Distinguished Professor of Engineering; the project’s plant science leaders are Ed Cahoon, George Holmes Professor of Biochemistry and director of the Center for Plant Science Innovation at UNL, and Jim Alfano, Charles Bessey Professor of Plant Pathology with UNL’s Institute of Agricultural and Natural Resources.

In addition to the research, a set of workforce education and development activities to engage the next generation of scientists is planned. These activities form a workforce development pipeline: for middle school and high school students, as well as undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars.

Partnerships with Nebraska’s tribal colleges will create related curricula and further educate Native American students for science careers.

EPSCoR was established by Congress to support science, mathematics and technology research, infrastructure, and education in states that receive disproportionately lower amounts of federal research funding. Since 1991, Nebraska has received more than $308 million from federal EPSCOR/IDeA programs.

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