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UTSA plant biologists receive $690,000 to advance research

Pair of studies will reveal environmentally-friendly tactics to optimize plant growth

San Antonio Jurgen Engelberth, assistant professor of plant biochemistry, and Valerie Sponsel, associate professor of biology, in the Department of Biology at The University of Texas at San Antonio were collectively awarded $690,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to further their research in plant biology. Their respective studies will offer a better understanding of how plants can be manipulated to live longer and / or improve their harvests.

Engelberth has received $540,000 from the NSF for the next three years to research the effects of plant chemicals called green leafy volatiles. Plants release green leafy volatiles when they are cut or wounded by harmful agents such as herbivores or pathogens. Neighboring plants receive the green leafy volatiles from the damaged plant as odor, which triggers a complicated biological pathway that allows those neighboring plants to subtlety prime themselves for future damage.

Specifically, Engelberth will study how OPRs (12-oxo-phytodienoate reductases), a family of proteins that appears to integrate various stress signaling pathways, are involved in the regulation of priming plant defense responses to insect herbivores and fungal pathogens. Ultimately, Engelberths research will contribute to the development of environmentally-sound strategies to control pests.

Sponsel will receive $150,000 over the next year to research the genes responsible for the biosynthesis of plant hormones called gibberellins. The one-year interdisciplinary research project will be conducted with Garry Sunter, associate professor of biology, and Jianhua Ruan, assistant professor of computer science, and will include biochemical, molecular and computational approaches. This award brings Sponsels NSF support into its twentieth year.

Using Arabidopsis thaliana, which was the first plant to have its genome sequenced, Sponsel will study internal factors regulating the production of gibberellin. These hormones affect a plants life cycle from seed germination to flowering and seed production. Specifically, she will investigate how particular enzymes are regulated by gibberellins and other plant hormones. 136 gibberellins exist in plants, many of which are important intermediates in the production of biological active hormone, or its deactivation. To be effective signaling molecules hormones must use elegant molecular means to generate on/off signals. Sponsels research will contribute to a better understanding of how scientists can modify a plants genetics to manipulate the plant to produce a larger harvest.

This research is extremely important. It is instantly translatable. Ultimately, plant biologists are finding ways to make plants live longer and produce more crops, and those are things that affect our food supply, said George Perry, dean of the UTSA College of Sciences.


About the University of Texas at San Antonio

The University of Texas at San Antonio is one of the fastest growing higher education institutions in Texas and the second largest of nine academic universities and six health institutions in the UT System. As a multicultural research and teaching institution of access and excellence, UTSA aims to be a premier public research university, providing access to educational excellence and preparing citizen leaders for the global environment.

UTSA serves more than 29,100 students in 64 bachelors, 48 masters and 21 doctoral degree programs in the colleges of Architecture, Business, Education and Human Development, Engineering, Honors, Liberal and Fine Arts, Public Policy, Sciences and Graduate School. Founded in 1969, UTSA is an intellectual and creative resource center and a socioeconomic development catalyst for Texas and beyond.


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