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Biology Professor Leeann Thornton Receives $200,000 Two-Year Federal Award For Research on Plant Stress Responses

Biology Professor, Dr. Leeann Thornton, has received a $200,000 two-year award from the US Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The title of her project was “CYP72A Enzymes as Regulators of Plant Responses as Regulators to Combined Abiotic and Biotic Stresses.”

The project focuses on how understanding plant responses to environmental stresses is critical for choosing crop plant varieties that mitigate the impact of biotic and abiotic constraints on food production. Little is known about the complex shifts in secondary metabolic pathways for plant protection from environmental stresses. We are exploring the cytochrome P450 enzyme subfamily, CYP72As, as candidates for shifting metabolic flux from growth-related products to metabolites needed for protection. In some plants, CYP72A enzymes detoxify herbicides, so they may naturally play a role in breaking down unwanted metabolites that accumulate under stress.

Damaged corn

Maize is an important global food plant that is subject to multiple combinations of environmental stresses. It has been found that the absence of two CYP72A genes in maize makes salt stressed plants less susceptible to attack by caterpillars. Therefore, this project will test the hypothesis that CYP72A enzymes are involved in abiotic stress responses that compete with biotic stress defenses. Using molecular genetic techniques, metabolic profiling, and computational studies, this project will: 1) isolate additional CYP72A mutations and alter expression levels with virus constructs; 2) measure abiotic and biotic stress responses associated the CYP72A mutations; and 3) determine the chemical nature of metabolites produced by CYP72As. These objectives will uncover complexities in maize acclimation to abiotic stress that apply to other crop species, such as sorghum and millet.

This work addresses the USDA-NIFA Physiology of Agricultural Plans Program Area Priority to support projects on the mechanisms of plant response to abiotic stress as well as projects on secondary metabolism in agriculturally important plants.

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