UMD to lead $5 million NSF-funded research partnership to develop drought-tolerant canola crops

October 25, 2010

The University of Maryland has received a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to lead a multi-institutional research partnership that will aid in developing agricultural crop plants able to withstand drought conditions. The project will focus on guard cells in the canola plant (Brassica napus). Canola is an important oilseed crop grown for both human consumption and biodiesel production. June Kwak, associate professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland, will lead the research group that will analyze the cellular activity and gene expression in guard cells that influence how plants respond to drought.

Plants lose water through microscopic pores on their leaves that allow water to evaporate and carbon dioxide to enter for photosynthesis. The pores, called stoma, are regulated by "guard cells" which surround each pore and close under drought conditions, thereby promoting plant water conservation.

"Our ultimate goal is to understand how guard cells, and thus plants, respond to drought," says Kwak. "We also want to translate this knowledge to generate plants and crop species that are tolerant of drought, plants that could use water more efficiently."

Drought causes severe damage to crops, resulting in major losses in yield. In addition, fresh water scarcity is one of the major global problems of the 21st century, affecting more than 1.1 billion people worldwide. Climate experts predict that as global temperatures rise, there will be more areas affected by drought globally and that there will be increased variability in the amounts and distribution of precipitation. This will result in profound impacts on global fresh water resources, over 65% of which are used for agriculture. There will be increased competition for water from municipal, industrial, and agricultural users. Kwak says that we lose billions of dollars to drought every year in the United States.

"While I don't think that you can have 100% control over the impact of drought, what if you can have 10 or 15 percent more control over this? It would mean a lot to farmers and to the nation's natural resources," Kwak says.

To accomplish their goal, investigators will analyze guard cell activities in response to drought, including dynamic changes in RNA molecules, proteins, and metabolites in the canola plant and develop a genome scale view to understand how cellular networks and hormones regulate the plant's reaction under low water conditions. These data sets will be used, together with advanced genome sequencing approaches, to map genetic lines in Brassica napus and to identify natural variation in sensitivity to drought and in the speed at which water evaporates from stoma. Models generated from integrating this genomic, bioinformatic, and proteomic information will provide important information and a blueprint for improving water use efficiency and resistance to drought in crops.

In addition to Kwak, five other biologists will contribute their expertise to this effort, including Sarah M. Assmann (Penn State University), Joel S. Bader (Johns Hopkins University), John K. McKay (Colorado State University), Scott C. Peck (University of Missouri, Columbia), and Julian Schroeder (University of California, San Diego).

Their collaboration should provide a much more comprehensive understanding of guard cell signaling than scientists have discovered to date.

"These analyses will lead to comprehensive data sets for environmental stress-induced changes that occur in guard cells. Initial studies using guard cell-specific genomic approaches have shown that this type of research leads to important advances and breakthroughs in understanding drought stress signaling in plants," says co-investigator Julian Schroeder.

These research activities will generate a new "systems biology" view of a single plant cell type that can be used to manipulate guard cells and to develop practical universal strategies for improving water stress tolerance in a variety of crop species. Each site will broaden the impact of this research by conducting active outreach activities, such as engaging high school students and undergraduates from under-represented groups in the project. All data sets, protocols, and biological resources will be released to the public through a project website ( and through the relevant long-term data repositories that include the Arabidopsis Biological Resource Center (ABRC), the Multinational Brassica Genome Project (, Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO), IntAct ( and BioGRID (

University of Maryland

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