Iowa State's Plant Sciences Institute awards innovative research grants

AMES, Iowa -- Iowa State University's Plant Sciences Institute has awarded start-up funding to seven innovative research projects.

The two-year grants were awarded to Iowa State faculty through a competitive program intended to stimulate excellence in plant science research. Grant amounts are between $25,000 and $30,000 per year for a maximum of two years.

The projects relate to the institute's research initiatives, which target specific challenges facing Iowa agriculture and the plant bioscience industry. The initiatives are in the areas of genomics, biopharmaceuticals, nutrition, biorenewables and crop protection.

Criteria for selection included scientific merit, potential impact, innovation and probability to lead to future funding or to produce clearly defined products or services that will enhance the value of Iowa's crops.

"We're pleased to initiate these quality research projects. They have great potential for contributing to the advancement of plant science research for the benefit of Iowa agriculture," said Stephen Howell, director of the Plant Sciences Institute.

The research projects are described below.

  • Thomas Harrington, professor of plant pathology and natural resource ecology and management, will develop DNA markers to track the movement of Asian soybean rust in the United States. These genetic tools will be useful to characterize the diversity of the rust fungus population as it becomes established and new races appear in the United States. The project will complement ongoing research in the institute's crop protection initiative to identify genes in soybean that are activated in response to rust fungus infection.
  • Martha James, adjunct associate professor in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology, will lead a team to enhance the nutritional quality of starch-containing foods in a project in the institute's nutrition initiative. The team plans to develop a resistant or slower digestible starch to help combat type 2 diabetes and obesity, the two fastest growing health problems in the United States. Resistant starch will prevent the rapid rise in blood glucose levels, slow insulin release and reduce caloric availability. The researchers will focus on a form of starch developed at ISU (LCAPS) that has potential as a resistant starch. They will test the starch's performance in the laboratory by characterizing its structural and functional properties and its digestibility. They also will assess its performance by measuring effects on the glycemic index of food or food products in feeding trials with adult humans, in comparison with starches from normal maize and wheat.
  • Soybeans are very efficient in packing soy proteins in their seeds. Diane Bassham, assistant professor of genetics, development and cell biology, will investigate ways to use that packaging system to store therapeutic proteins made in the seeds of soybean plants engineered to produce biopharmaceuticals. This project is part of an overall initiative to produce high-value proteins for pharmaceutical use in Iowa crops.
  • Alfalfa is a high-quality forage crop for livestock in Iowa and could be an important biorenewable feedstock for the production of bioenergy and industrial products. As a project in the institute's genomics research initiative, Charles Brummer, associate professor of agronomy, will identify genes associated with heterosis (hybrid vigor), yield and autumn dormancy. Brummer will use Iowa State's GeneChip facility to search through thousands of genes in the alfalfa genome to find expression patterns associated with genes that may boost yields or improve winter hardiness. The research complements a major project in the institute's genomics research initiative to understand the molecular basis for heterosis in corn.
  • Julie Dickerson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, will lead an effort to launch a public database for large-scale soybean gene expression data. Called SoyPLEX, it will be the first resource for soybean scientists that integrates new and rapidly expanding gene-expression profile data sets with traditional structural genomics and phenotypic data. SoyPLEX will facilitate many different tasks using a single Web interface that is easily accessible to the large international community of soybean researchers interested in gene expression.
  • Plant stress causes the greatest loss of crops worldwide. Losses from floods, pathogens, ground-level ozone and exposure to pollutants generally result from oxidative stress caused by the build up of harmful oxygen species in plants. Although scientists believe that hemoglobins, the same proteins that carry oxygen in our bodies, protect healthy plant cells from harmful oxygen species, they do not fully understand how. Mark Hargrove, associate professor of biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology, will investigate corn hemoglobins to understand how they are involved in plant responses to oxidative stress. The project is part of the institute's crop protection initiative.
  • A major goal of the institute's biopharmaceutical research initiative is to produce a protein in feed corn to bolster pig immune responses and to strengthen swine vaccines. This project will address Porcine Reproductive Respiratory Syndrome, a disease that costs the swine industry $600 million annually. Current vaccines are not highly effective in controlling the disease. Chad Stahl, assistant professor of animal science, and Dr. Hank Harris, professor of animal science and veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine, will evaluate the vaccine's performance in pigs fed corn genetically engineered at Iowa State to produce the immune-stimulating protein. If successful, this strategy might help curtail the use of antibiotics in livestock production.

The Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State University is dedicated to becoming one of the world's leading plant science research institutes. More than 200 faculty from the College of Agriculture, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the College of Family and Consumer Sciences and the College of Engineering conduct research in nine centers of the institute. They seek fundamental knowledge about plant systems to help feed the growing world population, strengthen human health and nutrition, improve crop quality and yield, foster environmental sustainability and expand the uses of plants for biobased products and bioenergy.

The Plant Sciences Institute supports the training of students for exciting career opportunities and promotes new technologies to aid in the economic development of agriculture and industry throughout the state. The institute is supported through public and private funding.