CAN: How UGA plant geneticists are tackling the climate crisis

Staff
17 Min Read

With record-breaking temperatures and extreme weather escalating, the threats posed by climate change are intensifying. But the plants of tomorrow—small and humble though they might be— could help us meet the massive challenges of our warming planet.

Plant genetics research at the University of Georgia spans schools, departments, disciplines, and centers. From the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) to Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, from the Plant Center to the Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics & Genomics and more, UGA faculty with genetics expertise are seeking plant-based solutions to societal challenges.

Some of these faculty are conducting studies at the cellular level, while others investigate plants as whole organisms. Still others are exploring how epigenetics shape entire ecosystems. And while a number of UGA geneticists prioritize fundamental discovery, others are partnering with breeders or with industry to bring new crops and plant-based products to market.

Together, these faculty share a passion for plants—and an optimism about the power of plants to help us adapt to a changing climate.

“We’re spread out all over campus,” said Bob Schmitz, UGA Foundation Professor of Plant Sciences and the Lars G. Ljungdahl Distinguished Investigator of Genetics. “But we all speak the same language.

“We’re all looking for solutions.”

The charisma of sunflowers
Growing up in Minnesota, Distinguished Research Professor John Burke took an interest in the outdoors, collecting snakes, salamanders, and turtles with his two older brothers. Years later, he earned his Ph.D. in genetics from UGA in 1999 and returned as a faculty member in 2006. Among his many studies, he has put particular focus on sunflowers.

Tracking epigenetic changes in native ecosystems
Schmitz likes to tell people that he’ll work on any plant that has DNA—which is all of them, of course. “Our questions are broader than any particular plant,” he said.

A member of the Department of Genetics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, Schmitz studies the mechanisms of epigenetic inheritance in plants, or how a plant’s environment influences the way its genes operate. “The genome is the same in all cells, but the way that genome is interpreted can change depending on the external environment, such as factors like an infection,” he said. “We try to understand how these events lead to changes in gene regulation both within and between plant species.”

Members of the Schmitz Lab, working in partnership with international researchers, discovered that rare changes to DNA methylation (or chemical modifications to DNA) can spuriously occur over generations of plants. They then found that they could use those multi-generational changes, which “tick” at a constant rate, to determine plant divergence time, whether over the lifespan of long-lived plants such as trees or between different plant populations.

The information provided by this epigenetic clock, Schmidtz says, includes data relevant to the timing of invasive species introduction and the impact of human activity on native environments. These insights could prove useful for understanding how plant populations migrate, expand, or contract due to a changing climate.

“We’re now working with ecologists to track how plants in their native environment respond a changing climate,” Schmitz said. “The discovery of an evolutionary epigenetic clock provides a new tool for dating divergence times between populations of plant species. It can even make predictions about how population sizes are increasing or decreasing due to human disturbance or climate change.”

Schmitz cites UGA’s legendary strength in plant genomics as a draw for researchers. “One reason I came to UGA is because they have such strength in assembling plant genomes for numerous and diverse crops,” he said. “The peanut genome came out of UGA. So did cotton, sorghum, poplar, maize, and many more—these are all major achievements. These efforts make it easy for labs like mine to work across diverse plant species and disciplines.”

Passing along fundamental genetic discoveries to research partners along the basic-to-applied continuum is something UGA does well, says John Burke, distinguished research professor and head of the Department of Plant Biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. He notes that the broad intersectionality of plant research has become a signature strength of the university.

“There are intentional mechanisms in place to help bridge gaps between units,” Burke said. Programs like the Plant Center and the Institute for Integrative Precision Agriculture break down barriers that might otherwise separate researchers. “We have ways to work together here. That’s critically important.”

From plants to powerhouses
While some UGA plant geneticists pursue fundamental discovery, others are bridging the gap between basic and applied research. From Crop & Soil Sciences to Plant Pathology and Horticulture within the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, these faculty members are helping transform crop plants, native species, and the future of bioenergy for a changing global climate.

As the Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar Chair in Crop Genomics, Robin Buell uses comparative genomics, bioinformatics, and computational biology to investigate the genome biology of plants and plant pathogens. While her subjects have ranged from rice and potatoes to maize, switchgrass, and medicinal plants, she currently studies poplar. Buell is the principal investigator on a $15.8M Dept of Energy grant to genetically engineer poplar trees (Populus sp. and hybrids) for biofuel production and other uses. The grant also includes studies by UGA scientists Wayne Parrott, Chung-Jui Tsai, Schmitz, and Breeanna Urbanowicz.

Poplar has strong potential to provide an alternative to petroleum-based products, Buell explains. “It’s so fast growing, it’s almost a weed. You can grow it almost everywhere. You don’t have to grow it on prime land,” she said. Her team will use state-of the-art biotechnology tools to breed the trees as a multipurpose crop.

“We’ve been able to do genetic engineering for the last twenty years, active breeding for even longer,” Buell said. “But those developments have been incremental, not substantial.”

This project has a more audacious goal.

“Let’s reinvent this tree,” she said. “Let’s take Humpty Dumpty, let’s break him, and let’s put him back together again, but in a more intelligent way—and faster.” The redesigned poplars will be fabricated through an intensive process that begins with measuring mRNA transcripts and includes mapping gene function throughout the tree. The end result could provide an alternative fuel for jet engines, among other sustainable products.

Buell also directs the Plant Center, where she helps convene experts across campus and from visiting institutions to study plant science across disciplines. “There’s terrific diversity of expertise at UGA in plant genetics,” she said. “We really have it all here. And the culture of the institution permits people to do collaborative work. The culture helps us find solutions to the problems we’re facing.”

Wayne Parrott, distinguished research professor of crop and soil sciences, calls his area of investigation “Biotechnology 2.0.” An internationally renowned geneticist, Parrott has spent more than 35 years at UGA leveraging tools to help new soybean varieties and investigating the environmental and human safety of genetically modified crops.

“My lab focuses on the development and use of biotechnology applications to help out with conventional plant breeding and plant improvement,” he said. “But there’s a lag between what people want to do and what people are able to do.” His team is closing that gap by developing biotechnology applications to help strengthen conventional crop plant breeding and improvement.

“We have a first generation of genetically modified crops that have been out there for about 25 years and have really changed how agriculture is done,” Parrott said. “But that all involved simple traits. Now, we’re moving on to more complex traits—and multiple traits at the same time.” The results of these new applications, he predicts, will be dramatic.

“The next generation of crops is going to be as different from today’s crops as an iPhone is from the original flip phones that came out 20 years ago,” he said.

Parrott directs the Institute for Plant Breeding, Genetics & Genomics, where researchers from multiple disciplines develop new crop varieties and conduct studies to understand the genetic traits of plants important to agriculture and humankind. He credits the institute with helping bring together plant genetics experts from all positions along the research pipeline. He also credits the new Integrated Plant Sciences program with raising UGA’s national profile and bringing some of the top graduate students in the country here to study.

That graduate program is coordinated by Esther van der Knaap, distinguished research professor of horticulture in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. She describes Integrated Plant Sciences as a central access point for prospective students to plant and fungal research across UGA. The curriculum allows students to undertake rotations in their first year to determine the best fit for their research interests, whether bioinformatics, ecology, genetics, breeding, biochemistry, or some combination.

“This type of program is something I dreamed about at my previous institution, but it wouldn’t have been possible,” van der Knaap said. “At UGA, it was possible.”

Van der Knaap’s own research involves tomato foodshed. At the Center for Applied Genetic Technologies, which supports the development, application, and commercialization of new technologies to genetically improve crops, the van der Knaap lab studies variations in tomato fruit quality, from shape and size to taste. The latter trait is closely connected to aroma and especially important for fresh market tomatoes. Van der Knaap’s team is collaborating with food scientists, breeders, and biochemists at UGA and at the University of Florida to identify genes that cause variations in the flavor profile of tomato as they became domesticated over time, from fully wild to what we buy in grocery stores today. Certain ancestral varieties, she says, produce highly flavorful tomatoes but are not suitable for commercialization—owing to low yield or a less-than-ideal appearance, for example.

The resulting information about genes that improve flavor can be used by breeders to develop tastier tomatoes for the market.

“Our focus is on capturing the genes that control fruit quality traits in tomato,” she said. “We also investigate the genetic diversity of these genes that, collectively, offer knowledge to breeders in both public and private sectors.”

Engineering adaptation
A new frontier in plant genetics research is high-throughput phenotyping, a type of genetic screening that uses cutting-edge technologies to generate data about large plant populations such as a crop field or forest. Guoyu Lu, assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a specialist in high-throughput phenotyping, says that these new technologies could help researchers, breeders, farmers, and forestry officials make decisions in real time to support and protect the plants they oversee.

Lu comes to this work with a track record of engineering innovation. Before joining the UGA faculty in 2022, his career included positions as a research scientist on autonomous driving at Ford and a computer vision engineer at the Disney ESPN Advanced Technology Group. His projects have attracted the interest and investment of Ford, GM, Qualcomm, Tencent, Mackinac, and more.

“I work on the AI side,” Lu said. “I’m an AI scientist, but I’m developing algorithms for plant scientists.”

Using computer vision and robotics, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drone technology), Lu and his team are capturing and generating data on specific genetic traits within large plant populations. The information they gather includes root structure, height, disease state, and more—all collected without harming the plants themselves.

Currently, Lu is working to build an AI algorithm that is one-size-fits-all—a multi-purpose tool suitable for gathering genetic data on many different plants across multiple populations. He wants that tool to be accessible to anyone who needs it in the field, especially as extreme weather patterns intensify.

“My work uses UAV to estimate the 3D structure models of both crops and forests,” he said. “The 3D structures can provide height, coverage, and other information. This data can be used to estimate growth, carbon dioxide absorption, impact on the environment, and more.”

Long term, this tool could help guide decision making—helping make recommendations about fertilization needs, for instance, or prescribed fire, or water flow and usage during a drought.

“This type of method could potentially be extended to satellites,” Lu said, “to support measurement in the state and across the country. The goal is to provide a tool that is usable by all.”

An ecology of collaboration
Plant genetics at UGA begins and ends with partnerships. Researchers have forged ties across disciplines and schools, with strong collaboration from field sites and with sustained support from leaders and partners across Georgia and beyond.

“We have some of the top researchers in the world right here at UGA,” Burke said. “And the work is going on across the spectrum.”

The race to adapt to a changing climate is on—and these scientists are leading the way, with bold inquiry and deep appreciation for the plants they have dedicated their professional lives to understanding and championing.

“We’re in this together,” Schmitz says. “I like to plan; I’m a planner by nature, but you can’t always know what will come next. Sometimes you have to adapt. We’re finding a way forward together.”

Source: research.uga.edu

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