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MSU to use $3.6 million NSF grant to unveil plants’ gates and signaling secrets

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Credit: G.L. Kohuth

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State University has landed a $3.6 million National Science Foundation grant to learn more about how plants' molecular gates close and alert defenses for battling diseases.

The MSU team will study plants' stomata, which are specialized pores on the surface of plants' leaves. They play a key role in many functions, including the exchange of gasses, restricting water loss and, in terms of diseases, serving as gatekeepers to stop pathogens.

Many of these responses share a number of common features, including the stomata. Much in the same way that hormones regulate human cellular processes, plant hormones control plant response to changes in the environment. By studying these links, MSU researchers are hoping to gain insights on the specific mechanisms critical in controlling these functions.

"We want to find out how plants battle bacterial pathogens at the molecular level," said Brad Day, associate professor of plant, soil and microbial science and the grant's co-lead investigator. "We'll use plant stomata as a marker to understand how chemical changes in a cell are perceived and ultimately transduced to regulate physical and mechanical changes in cellular movement, architecture and shape."

With this knowledge, the investigators will define the principle components that plants use to monitor their environments for potential threats and to rapidly respond to them.

"The ultimate goal of this research is to uncover mechanisms that plants use to survive," said Sheng Yang He, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Plant Biology Investigator, and an MSU Distinguished Professor in the MSU-Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory, and co-lead investigator. "We want to know how plants and bacterial pathogens battle to take control of stomata closure and opening, with an emphasis on the role of plants' actin molecules, which form intracellular cables inside plant cells."

These cables, skeletons of sorts, play a key role in the immune systems of plants and animals, he added.

As part of this grant, Day and He will work with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow's office to help communicate how advances in the lab can have a direct impact on daily life and one of the state's biggest industries – agriculture.

"With Michigan State tied so closely to the state's agriculture industry, we are uniquely positioned to make these connections," Day said. "The relationship between bench science and field research, as well as the impact of environmental stress on food security, will be front and center of our efforts."

Day and He will conduct a portion of their research in MSU's plant growth chamber facility, which is the largest of any university in the world.

"With the growth chambers, we can duplicate any past, present or future climate anywhere in the world," Day said. "We're not doing last week's science, we're positioning ourselves for the future."

Discovering how plants fend off diseases and survive changing climate, droughts and freezing temperatures will help find ways to feed the world's projected future population of 9 billion people, he added.

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Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for more than 150 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.

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Layne Cameron
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