National Science Foundation funds systems biology study of crop drought responses

September 30, 2009

Blacksburg, Va. - An international team of researchers, led by Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Professor Andy Pereira, has been awarded a three-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a systems biology approach to help combat the effects of drought on a variety of staple food crops.

Water scarcity, caused by factors such as climate change and rapid population growth, can limit crop production, especially when it occurs during essential periods of plant growth. Cereal crops such as maize, wheat, rice, and barley can be drastically affected by even slight water deficits at critical reproductive stages. Developing a more comprehensive understanding of drought and plants' complex responses to this environmental stress requires a global view of the multiple interactive components involved.

The goal of this three-year project, "Cereal drought stress response and resistance networks," is to develop a systems biology view of the drought responses of these cereal crops to aid in the dissection of these complex biological processes. The team will develop a cereal drought gene interaction network by integrating data from rice and maize to help identify key regulatory genes and signaling pathways that may be critical for improving drought resistance.

"Plants have complex mechanisms of acclimation and adaptation to respond to and survive environmental stresses, such as drought," Pereira explained. "Analysis of these protective mechanisms will provide insights into plant stress response and resistance. Our goal is to use the data from genome-wide comparative transcriptome analysis of drought responses in rice and maize to develop a network to help us identify how certain genes in plants regulate other genes. This combined bioinformatic and systems biology approach is a powerful way to find those genes that may be modified in some way to improve crop adaptability, which will contribute to the development of stable food production systems worldwide."

According to co-principal investigator and Virginia Tech Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science Professor Ruth Grene, "We have been afforded a marvelous opportunity to apply basic research methods to a pressing global problem. Specific information about drought tolerance in cereal crops can emerge from the application of the unique skill set of our team through the generation and unification of data across more scales of organization than was possible before."

"We will be looking at the functionality of select drought responsive genes, identified in the interaction network by transferring them into rice," explained co-principal investigator and Louisiana State University Agricultural Center Assistant Professor Niranjan Baisakh. "The modified rice plants will be evaluated for their growth responses to drought stress under greenhouse simulations that could help our understanding of rice plant biology in the field conditions."

Pennsylvania State University Plant Pathology Associate Professor Yinong Yang, also co-principal investigator on the project, added. "Drought stress response involves a complex network of signal transduction which is often mediated by reactive oxygen species, ion fluxes, protein phosphorylation, abscisic acid and other signaling processes. Determining the role of specific signaling pathways and elucidating their crosstalks or interrelationships in rice will help us understand the underlying mechanisms of cereal drought tolerance."

The project also includes the development of a cereal drought website, providing query and visualization tools that will allow project members and general users to explore project updates, methods, and results. The outreach components feature a mentoring program for postdoctoral researchers to facilitate career development, as well as a program designed to educate high school, undergraduate minority, and interdisciplinary graduate students in experimental biological sciences and computer science to explore topics closely tied to the project, such as climate change and sustainable environments. VBI's current NSF-funded cyberinfrastructure outreach project, "Cyberinfrastructure for Biological Researchers, Educators and Developers (CIBRED)," will help support the project's outreach efforts.

According to Oswald Crasta, project director of Virginia Bioinformatics Institute's Cyberinfrastructure Group, as well as co-principal investigator on the cereal drought stress response project and principal investigator of the CIBRED project, "This project provides an exciting opportunity to apply a systems approach for studying the impact of drought stress in cereals. We shall leverage the cyberinfrastructure and outreach resources for organization, analysis and dissemination of the data and the knowledge that will be generated through this project."

The project also includes international collaborations with CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) in Mexico and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.
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About the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute

The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech has a research platform centered on understanding the "disease triangle" of host-pathogen-environment interactions in plants, humans and other animals. By successfully channeling innovation into transdisciplinary approaches that combine information technology and biology, researchers at VBI are addressing some of today's key challenges in the biomedical, environmental and plant sciences. https://www.vbi.vt.edu/

Virginia Tech

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