CRRI group yields team for new plant science research collaboration

November 30, 2018

NSF awards $3.9M EPSCoR RII Track-2 FEC project to Alabama, Nebraska partnership

In theaters, teams of movie superheroes frequent a series of films, addressing varied challenges with their complementary skill sets. In plant science, when such opportunities arise, Nebraska is home to several key collaborators.

In 2016 the National Science Foundation established the Center for Root & Rhizobiome Innovation (CRRI) here--researching interactions of soil, water and chemicals to advance agricultural yields to help better feed the world. CRRI connected University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty Tom Clemente, James Schnable, Yufeng Ge and Jinliang Yang—and fostered collaboration among:

  • Clemente, a leading expert in plant transformation and genome editing;
  • Schnable, a rising plant geneticist connecting genotype and phenotype across multiple grass species;
  • Ge, an engineer fascinated by using new and emerging technologies to image and quantify plants; and
  • Yang, a brand new assistant professor focused on the population genetics of corn.

In 2018 these four began partnering with Alabama’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, an agricultural genomics research and education center, to investigate how sorghum responds to nitrogen-based fertilizer and educate the next generation of scientists in agrigenomics. Announced in October, their four-year, $3.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is a Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) Track-2 Focused EPSCoR Collaborations (FEC) project that will conduct cutting-edge plant genomics research to better understand how nitrogen affects plant growth and development.

As this Track-2 project’s work starts in Huntsville and Lincoln, the Nebraska team’s efforts include CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, and automated phenotyping with the state-of-the-art LemnaTeC high-throughput system for imaging large plants, at Nebraska Innovation Campus.

HudsonAlpha’s Jeremy Schmutz, the project’s principal investigator, said, “We need to look at how to improve the sustainability of our crops now in order to make the changes we need for the future. We are just beginning to understand the impacts of our modern agriculture systems. We need to find solutions that make our crops more efficient — for both food and biofuel sources.”

“This multidisciplinary team brings together expertise in plant genetics, genomics, biotechnology, and engineering to address the grand challenge of improving nitrogen use efficiency in sorghum, a valuable feedstock in the bioeconomy,” said Clemente. “Importantly, the outcomes of this project will have translational impacts on other plant species, critical to the country's agriculture sector of the economy.” 

'The thing to remember is that we still know so little about how plants perceive and react to change in their environments,” Schnable added. “Helping plants use nitrogen more efficiently is beneficial, and any change in how these sorghum plants behave after a genome edit tells us more about the role of both individual genes and networks. Changes produced by each edit, whether expected or unexpected, get fed back into improving our models, so we're better able to choose and predict the next batch of edits to make."

In addition to the genomic research, this biotech project includes a workforce development component: a set of experiences promoting agrigenomic-related careers, a multi-week summer academy for high school students, undergraduate mentoring and internship opportunities.

UNL's Tom Clemente, Jinliang Yang, James Schnable and Yufeng Ge collaborate on new NSF-funded plant science research

Image caption: From left, UNL's Tom Clemente, Jinliang Yang, James Schnable and Yufeng Ge collaborate on new NSF EPSCoR funded plant science.