Public Release: 

Genomic biology institute's first grant to focus on soybeans, climate change

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- One of the five newly named research themes of the Institute for Genomic Biology under construction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has landed the institute's first major federal grant.

A three-year $2.98 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will allow a team led by Evan DeLucia, a professor of plant biology, to focus on the genetic responses of soybeans to climate change. The DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research approved the grant this month.

DeLucia's work falls under the Genomic Ecology of Global Change research theme, directed by plant scientist Don Ort. The theme was announced in April by IGB Director Harris Lewin.

Under the project, soybeans -- a crop vital to the state's agricultural economy -- will be used as a model system for using new and emerging genomic technologies to answer unresolved questions arising from climatic changes projected for the next century.

"We'll be using genomic technologies that are new and untested with soybeans, a crop whose genetic makeup already is pretty well defined," DeLucia said. "We want to know how changes in carbon dioxide and ozone concentrations in the atmosphere affect the productivity of the crop."

In addition to greenhouse gases, DeLucia's team will study the potential effects of drought under global warming conditions and how insect populations and crop pathogens may change. The project also will call upon bioinformatics data analysis and the metabolomics (biochemical profiling) of soybean varieties.

Soybean researchers already know that the various types of soybeans respond differently to environmental influences, but they've been unable to identify the mechanisms that drive such responses. Such new approaches may help them to do so. "Eventually, by using these new and developing genomic technologies, agronomists may be able to know what genes or suites of genes are important for their crops under specific conditions," DeLucia said.

Such genomic analyses already are under way in other plant systems such as Arabidopsis (mustard plant) and rice.

The research will tap into technologies already available at the Keck Center for Comparative and Functional Genomics at Illinois and the soybean functional genomics laboratory directed by crop scientist Lila Vodkin. It also will build upon already existing research at SoyFACE, a futuristic crop experiment on the South Farms where corn and soybeans are growing in open field conditions under concentrations of carbon dioxide and ozone levels projected for the year 2050.

The Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research funded the startup of SoyFACE. "With this DOE grant," DeLucia said, "we are now more than doubling CFAR's initial investment, bringing federal dollars into the state of Illinois."

The research will be at the leading edge of plant and environmental biology, Lewin said. "The new space in IGB was a critical component of the success of this proposal, and I expect this formula to be repeated for the other IGB research themes," he said.

Five postdoctoral researchers will be hired to work fulltime on the new project, DeLucia said. Another four to five graduate students also will participate. Until the IGB facility is completed, the postdoctoral students and graduate students will be housed in the laboratories of DeLucia and co-investigators Ort, Ross D. Fitzhugh and Hans J. Bohnert, all of plant biology; Stephen P. Long of crop sciences; May Berenbaum of entomology; and Steven Clough of crop sciences and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


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