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$2.6M DOE Grant Supports UMD-led Study on Genetics of Plant Growth for Biofuels

By Kimbra Cutlip

A University of Maryland researcher was awarded $2.6 million by the U.S. Department of Energy to investigate the genetics underlying how poplar trees sense nutrients and regulate their metabolism—information that could help farmers maximize yields of this and other plants used in biofuel production.

Dedicated biomass crops like poplar, switchgrass, miscanthus and bamboo are grown on marginal lands that are not well suited to traditional crops like corn and wheat. It pays to understand how crops grown in such conditions use the nutrients available, how they metabolize and grow tissue, and how they respond to stressful conditions like drought.

“We’re interested in getting more information about how biomass crops like poplar sense and utilize nutrients so we can develop more informed strategies for manipulating this system and making it more efficient,” said Gary Coleman, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture who is leading the research.

Coleman is looking at the genes that encode for the TOR protein, one of the central components of the TOR complex. Its job is to receive signals from the molecules that sense a wide range of nutrients like carbon and nitrogen, and then relay that information to the cellular machinery that activates growth and inhibits cell death.

Mutating the TOR gene is lethal, which is why its function is not well understood. Poplar is rare in that it has two copies of the TOR gene. Coleman and his colleagues previously demonstrated that they could manipulate one copy or the other without killing the plant, and the team intends to take advantage of the duplicates to investigate how the gene works.

Coleman’s collaborators include Yiping Qi, an associate professor of plant science and landscape architecture at UMD, Edward Eisenstein, an associate professor at the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research at UMD, and researchers at the Michigan Technological University.

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