Danforth Center to Lead DOE-Funded Research to Harness Untapped Reservoir of Plant Genes in Quest for Bioenergy Crops

Collaboration includes National Renewable Energy Laboratory and University of Missouri.


Newswise — ST. LOUIS, MO, September 3, 2019 - The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has launched a major initiative important for the development of bioenergy crops and has selected Danforth Center Principal Investigator James Umen, Ph.D., member and Joseph Varner distinguished investigator, to lead a multi-institutional collaboration that will predict functions for hundreds of uncharacterized plant genes that could be important to stress tolerance in a range of potential bioenergy crops.

Umen and Ru Zhang, Ph.D., assistant member and principal investigator at the Danforth Center and their collaborators at the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, CO, have identified a set of hundreds of “Deep Green” genes that are shared among land plants and their green algal relatives, but with unknown functions.  These Deep Green genes are likely to play important roles in photosynthetic cells, but have not previously been studied. The team will use rapid screening methods in green algae to identify which Deep Green genes are needed for tolerance to different stresses, and combine these findings with advanced genomics-enabled computational algorithms to predict protein structures and genetic networks. The resulting Deep Green database will help prioritize these uncharacterized genes for further studies where they may be exploited to enhance yields of bioenergy plants or algae feedstocks under drought, heat or nutrient stresses.

 “While genome sequences for plants and algae are being produced in ever-growing numbers, our knowledge of what most plant and algal genes do remains remarkably limited. This project will help fill a major gap in understanding structures and functions for hundreds of plant and green algal proteins and the genes that encode them,” Umen said. “These genes hold untapped potential as resources for improving bioenergy crops.”

Umen and Zhang bring algal and plant functional genomics expertise to the research and they will leverage expertise in structural genomics and high-performance bioinformatics computing from team members at the NREL, and omics-based computational predictions from team members at MU.  A three-year $2.3M award from DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research supports the work.

About the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Research, education and outreach aim to have impact at the nexus of food security and the environment, and position the St. Louis region as a world center for plant science. The Center’s work is funded through competitive grants from many sources, including the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Follow us on Twitter at @DanforthCenter

Photo available upon request.

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