With new mass spectrometer, researchers can grow knowledge of plants and environmental stress

October 23, 2012

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- A Kansas State University professor's research analyzing lipids is helping scientists around the world understand plant responses and develop better crops that can withstand environmental stress.

To support her collaborative work, Ruth Welti, university distinguished professor of biology, recently received a grant of more than $440,000 from the National Science Foundation's Major Research Instrumentation program. The grant -- with matching funds from the university -- will be used to purchase the most advanced mass spectrometer for the Kansas Lipidomics Research Center, which Welti directs.

The new instrument will help Welti and other researchers study plant responses to heat and cold stress, plant infection by pathogens, and the development of plants and seeds, including seed oil production.

"We are trying to understand the basis for the way plants respond to stresses so the information can be used to improve crop plants," Welti said. "We want to obtain global information on plant responses and see how it relates to plant genotype."

Co-principal investigators on the grant include Kathrin Schrick, assistant professor of biology, and Timothy Durrett, assistant professor of biochemistry. The instrument coordinator will be Mary Roth, analytical laboratory manager for the center.

The new spectrometer will enable the researchers to better identify and quantify lipids, which are nonwater-soluble compounds that are found in all living cells and form cell membranes, store energy and serve as messengers. For one of the spectrometer's major projects, the scientists are studying Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant species that is a good model for a number of crop species, particularly closely related species such as canola.

"The information we gather in Arabidopsis can be translated into crop plants," Welti said. "We want to be able to improve plants so they can withstand environmental stresses better. That way, when we have a summer like this last one with a lot of extra heat, crops will be better able to withstand it."

To understand the genetic basis of plant stress, the researchers are studying a broad range of plant stresses, including heat, cold, freezing, salinity, bacterial pathogen infection and fungal pathogen infection. The scientists are also looking at how plants respond to mechanical wounding, such as insect biting or animal grazing.

"We are looking at how these stresses affect plants' ability to continue growing and living," Welti said. "We are assessing how long they can endure stress and assessing their response to stress in relation to their genetic makeup. Genetic changes can affect lipid composition, and we think the lipid changes are signals within and between plants as they respond to stress."

To assess the changes in lipids, the researchers are measuring lipid compounds. They are also comparing wild-type plants with plants that have altered genes to see how each responds.

"The advantage of doing this in a model plant species is that is it easy to understand genetic changes, which is really important," Welti said.

The collaborative project involves several other researchers, including Jyoti Shah at the University of North Texas; Xuemin Wang at the University of Missouri-St. Louis; and Charmaine Naidoo at Langston University.

The project involves analyzing more than 500 compounds in more than 17,000 plant samples. The new spectrometer will enable the researchers to collect and analyze the data nearly 20 times faster.

"What is taking us 36 months now will take us two months on this new instrument," Welti said.

The new spectrometer can benefit other research organizations with projects aimed at increasing agricultural production and understanding animal and human physiology. Because the center also performs mass spectrometry-based lipid analysis for scientists from all over the world, the spectrometer will also be available to the state, national and international scientific communities for other biochemical research projects.

The center, which was founded in 2003, is renovating space for the new spectrometer, which is expected to help with ongoing research from 15 laboratories in eight U.S. states and three countries. The new spectrometer is also expected to advance the training of numerous postdoctoral trainees, graduate students and undergraduates.

Kansas State University

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