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Stress Relief Makes for Healthier Corn Crops

corn field

MSU researchers are partners in a collaborative research project that could provide some well-deserved relief to stressed-out corn crops. The group is studying how corn responds to environmental stresses, and examining ways of increasing stress resistance through genetics.

The MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory (PRL) will receive approximately $700,000 of a $3.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant during the three-year funding period.

“This grant will allow us to understand the nature of the most critical limiting factors that affect crop yield at a cellular level,” said Federica Brandizzi, MSU Foundation Professor of plant biology, and one of three co-primary investigators on the project. “The results will lay the ground studies to manipulate such factors to endow crops with greater stress tolerance.”

Plant stress is one of the major limitations currently preventing crops from achieving their yield potential. Stresses such as drought, extreme temperatures and high salt content result in some of the greatest crop losses worldwide, estimated at billions of dollars. Corn is of particular interest due to its ubiquity in U.S. food, feed and fuel supply systems. The USDA estimates there are more than 90 million acres of corn plantations in the United States alone.

Extreme stressors, such as heat, can lead to the production of misfolded or unfolded proteins in corn plants. Improper folding may render a protein useless in carrying out its function in plant metabolism. The NSF project goal is to better understand how the Unfolded Protein Response (UPR) functions in corn and examine ways of increasing resistance to environmental stressors.

This understanding could lead to the bioengineering of plants that perform well despite stressful situations. Specifically, the researchers are interested in increasing the UPR’s reactivation of new protein production after undergoing “stress treatment” or optimizing how the UPR degrades damaged proteins.

“The findings from this research are expected to be translatable to other crops and, therefore, impact crop protection strategies well beyond corn,” Brandizzi said.

Collaborating with MSU on the project are Iowa State University and The University of North Carolina–Wilmington.

– College of Natural Science

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