With a new $5.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation, three University of Minnesota researchers are looking to better understand symbiotic relationships in nature.
Plant pathology professor Nevin Young is leading the research which looks at the interactions of the Medicago truncatula , a clover-like plant, and rhizobia soil-based bacteria.
Legumes such as the Medicago are the second most important family in the world, Young said, after cereals like wheat. The two are prevalent in all cultures.
“Agriculture is based on cereal and legumes,” he said.
What makes legumes special is the ability to work with bacteria, creating nitrogen accessible to all living things which goes into all proteins.
The Medicago is an ideal model because it’s nearly identical to alfalfa and soy beans, both very important agricultural crops, Young said.
Without the symbiotic relationship between legumes and bacteria producing usable nitrogen, Young said scientists would have to create synthetic fertilizer, having negative effects on the environment and using large amounts of petroleum.
“We will do a better job of taking care of Minnesota and our planet if we can manage the way people use nitrogen better,” he said.
The research Young and fellow University professors Michael Sadowsky and Peter Tiffin are doing is only possible with recent advances in DNA sequencing.
Young was recently a part of an international team of 150 scientists who sequenced the Medicago’s DNA. The group started its work in 2003 and will finish in July.
Scientists can efficiently sequence DNA, Young said, which is especially important as he needs the DNA of 500 individual Medicago sequenced for stronger results.
For the task, Young turned to his past, asking former pupil Joann Mudge of the National Center for Genomic Resources in Santa Fe, N.M. to lend a hand with the center’s next generation sequencing ability.
The process will take between 18 months and two years, Young said, sequencing five a week.
Only after finishing will researchers be able to analyze data with the hope of finding genes allowing for the best symbiotic relationship between Medicago and rhizobia.
Both are Mediterranean natives and display a unique type of symbiosis that Tiffin said is achieved through co-evolution.
Tiffin said often there would be conflict between species like Medicago and rhizobium, but for some reason there isn’t.
“We have an opportunity to go beyond a scale that we have been able to study these relationships than before,” he said.
Through this research, expected be complete in three to four years, Tiffin said he hopes to find which genes allow the species to have the best symbiotic relationship, and which genes don’t.
Through this, it could lead to production of crops that are capable of better symbiotic relationships, Mudge, a 1999 University graduate with a doctorate in plant breeding, said.
In an effort to reach budding scientists, Young said a percentage of the grant will be set aside to pay for undergraduate assistants for the research through the University’s Life Sciences Summer Undergraduate Program.
There, student from both the University and outside schools, specifically Hamline University and the University of Puerto Rico , will work specifically with the rhizobium.
The NCGR also has a program for high school students where using computational biology; they will analyze the Medicago DNA sequence, looking for genes to study further.
Young said the idea is to interest students in graduate school in biology, especially the students reached through the NCGR program in Sante Fe, New Mexico, and the University of Puerto Rico, which will include students of color underrepresented in graduate sciences.
It was wide scope that helped the team receive the NSF grant, which Young said pushes for projects with “broader impact than simply articles in journals.”
Looking to the next step, Tiffin knows with the information they have, they can ask and answer more questions than were possible before.
“It’s a whole new world. A new territory,” he said.