Co-PIs: Kirk Czymmek (University of Delaware - Newark), Rebecca J. Nelson (Cornell University), Gary Payne (North Carolina State University), Nick Lauter (USDA-ARS/Iowa State University) and Alicia Carriquiry (Iowa State University)

Other Senior Personnel/Faculty Associates: Peter J. Balint-Kurti and James B. Holland (USDA-ARS/North Carolina State University)

Understanding the causes of phenotypic variation in the plant defense response is one of the most important challenges faced by plant biologists. It is known that genetics plays a major role. However, this genetic variation is typically expressed on a quantitative scale that has made it difficult to pin down the genes and unravel the mechanisms underlying defense. Recent advances in plant research have substantially increased knowledge of the genetic architecture (i.e., information about how the genetic code produces phenotypic variation) of plant defense. However, in order to make this knowledge actionable, genetic observations must be mechanistically understood at other biological levels such as the cellular and molecular levels. In this project, a comprehensive analysis of maize quantitative defense will refine the understanding of its genetic architecture and identify genes involved in phenotypic variation for disease resistance. Furthermore, large-scale genetic resources and modernized computational tools will be used to link genetic architecture to mechanisms responsible for host defense. This project aims to achieve a more holistic understanding of the biological basis of plant defense so that novel long-term solutions for disease control can be envisaged.

The broader impacts of this project are several-fold. First, the project will contribute to the development of sustainable approaches to crop protection. The project's contributions to understanding the mechanisms that underlie variation in plant-pathogen interactions will inform the design of resistant germplasm. This is important in reducing losses of yield and quality for US maize, but is even more critical for protecting the food security of smallholder farmers in developing countries, where losses due to maize diseases are proportionally greater. Second, project insights will be distilled and conveyed to a large and diverse group of citizens in an effective and entertaining way through partnership with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. This partnership will improve science teacher competency in plant sciences; strengthen education about plant genomics and biology for seventh grade students by giving them hands-on experiences in state-of-the-art labs; and to offer a lecture series to the general public to increase science literacy. The museum is the highest attended in NC with over 650,000 annual visitors of varied ages, educational and socio- economic backgrounds. Third, scientific capacity building will be an integral part of the research conducted across the four institutions involved in this project. Undergraduates, including those from underrepresented groups in science, will be exposed to both field and laboratory studies and mentored by project leaders and post-doctoral scholars. Graduate and post-doctoral scholars will receive supplemental training through specialized workshops and co-investigating laboratory visits. Exchanges between laboratories will allow these researchers to acquire new skills and strengthen their development in collaborative and integrative research. A dedicated project website will act as a public awareness showcase for the project and access as a portal to available data and resources generated by the project along with information about the deposition of data into resource-appropriate public repositories (such as GenBank, GEO, MaizeGDB, and Panzea) from which project data can be accessed.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS)
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Diane Jofuku Okamuro
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University of Delaware
United States
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