DOE Grants $2.6M for UMD-led Study on Genetics of Plant Growth to Support Biofuels

Research aims to improve understanding of crops that can replace fossil fuels and petroleum products.

Associate Professor Gary Coleman with a collection of poplar sprouts that he is researching.

Image Credit: Associate Professor Gary Coleman with a collection of poplar sprouts that he is researching.

September 26, 2022 Kimbra Cutlip

Associate Professor Gary Coleman from the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture at the University of Maryland received $2,573,263 from the U.S. Department of Energy to investigate the genetics underlying how poplar trees sense nutrients and regulate their metabolism. The information he gains could help farmers maximize yields for poplar and similar crops.

Poplar trees are among a group of plants (including switchgrass and miscanthus and bamboo) that can be used to make biofuels and to replace some plastics and other petroleum products. Broad-scale use of these biofuels and biomaterials could help mitigate climate change by reducing the use of fossil fuels, and lessen the flow of new plastics into the environment.

But like any other crop, plants grown for fuel and materials require land. To avoid additional pressure on food-producing agricultural lands, these dedicated biomass crops are grown on marginal lands that are not well suited to traditional crops like corn and wheat.

And when you’re growing crops on marginal lands, it pays to understand as much as possible about how those crops make use of 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,” Coleman said.

Coleman is looking at the genes that encode for the TOR protein, one of the central components of the TOR complex (TORC), which is like a little machine made of molecules that exists in all known life. The job of the TOR complex 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.

One important way to study how a gene functions is to mutate it or remove it and see what happens, but 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.

The team intends to take advantage of the duplicate copies of the TOR gene to investigate how the gene works. They will use CRISPR gene editing technology to manipulate TOR genes and other genes that act as switches in the nutrient signaling/relay system. They’ll also use RNA transcriptomics, and bioinformatics to understand and model the network of genes involved in this intricate system.

Extending over the next three years, the grant will support the work of Coleman and collaborators Yiping Qi, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture at UMD, Edward Eisenstein, an associate professor at the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research at UMD, and collaborators Victor Busov and Hairong Wei at the Michigan Technological University.