ISU's Plant Sciences Institute awards funding to seven research projects that address new challenges to Iowa's agriculture and industry

AMES, Iowa -- The Plant Sciences Institute has awarded grants to seven new research projects to bolster the productive efforts of its five research initiatives and focus on plants and climate change.

"Our innovative grants program supports new research projects with exceptional prospects for advancing the scientific agenda of the institute," says Stephen Howell, institute director. "These new projects are vital to keep our research initiatives at the cutting edge."

Contributing an important new capacity to the Biorenewables Research Initiative, Martin Spalding, professor and chair of the department of genetics, development and cell biology; Larry Halverson, assistant professor in plant pathology; and Basil Nikolau, professor in biophysics, biochemistry and molecular biology, will metabolically engineer a microalgae to explore whether it can be used to produce biofuels.

Also bringing new research power to the area of biorenewables, Philip Becraft, associate professor, and Yanhai Yin, assistant professor, both in genetics, development and cell biology, will study plant growth hormones -- so called brassinosteroids -- in corn. The two will investigate how the growth hormone activates genes that enhance biomass production and grain yield.

As an enhancement to the Crop Protection Initiative, Gustavo MacIntosh, assistant professor in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology, will work on a molecularly based strategy to battle soybean aphids -- a new pest in Iowa. MacIntosh will explore the role of small RNA molecules that soybean plants deploy to defend themselves against aphid infestations.

The Biopharmaceuticals and Bioindustrials Research Initiative develops novel high-value products in corn plants. Brad Bosworth, affiliate associate professor, and Hank Harris, professor, both in animal science, and Kan Wang, professor of agronomy, will work to develop a new corn-derived oral vaccine against swine influenza. Swine influenza viruses represent a concern to the livestock industry and to human health.

Two grants have been awarded to bolster research in the Nutrition Research Initiative. One project led by Alan Myers, professor, and Peter Keeling, visiting professor, both in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology, will attempt to determine what directs the plant nutrient stream to either amino acids or to carbohydrates during corn grain development. In another project, Diane Bassham, associate professor in genetics, development and cell biology, along with Myers, will work out the role of a mechanism called autophagy -- whereby plant cells break down proteins to their amino acid building blocks, mobilizing cellular nitrogen content -- to determine whether this mechanism could increase grain protein amounts without additional nitrogen fertilizer.

The institute also supports research in a critical focus area of plants and climate change. One award made in that area was to Michael Thompson, professor of agronomy, who will attempt to quantify the amount of carbon stored below ground in roots of potential biofuel crops in systems that emulate natural perennial prairie.