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K-State Research and Extension
123 Umberger Hall
Manhattan, KS 66506-3401

August 29, 2023

K-State Researchers Land $1.9M Grant to Improve Crop Genetics

Submitted by Pat Melgares

(l to r) K-State researchers Sunghun Park, Sanzhen Liu and Doina Caragea will lead a .9M project funded by the National Science Foundation to identify genetic elements that enhance scientists’ ability to generate farm crops and other plants.

The National Science Foundation has awarded more than $1.9 million to a team of Kansas State University researchers to identify key genetic elements that enhance scientists’ ability to generate farm crops and other plants from tissues or cells.

Sanzhen Liu, an associate professor of plant genomics in K-State’s Department of Plant Pathology, said the project capitalizes on the university’s expertise in plant genomics and genome editing, a group of technologies that allows scientists to effectively analyze genetic information and modify genetic material at particular locations in an organism’s genome.

In agriculture, genome editing allows plant breeders to make changes to DNA, introducing a trait in future crop varieties that provides resistance to disease, improves its nutrient value, or introduces some other desirable attribute, such as heat or drought resistance.

In some cases, genome editing can shorten the breeding process from decades to a few years.

“The traditional approach to studying the genetic basis of plant regeneration is to examine the organism gene by gene, which is laborious and time-consuming,” said Liu, whose expertise is in genetics and genomics. “We are establishing a high throughput approach that can screen thousands of genes in parallel and examine the impact of each gene in cellular and molecular levels.”

Plant regeneration is the process of generating whole plants from tissues or cells of existing plants. For plant genetic engineering, Liu said, “it is important to be able to regenerate new whole plants and produce seeds” that contain the newer, desired traits.

“The result of this work will ultimately impact crop production of farmers in Kansas and the United States by providing genome editing and regeneration tools to improve crops capable of addressing the evolving challenges from changes in environmental conditions and human consumption,” Liu said.

“Developing a deeper understanding of plant regeneration is pivotal in advancing biotechnology and ensuring food security in the long run.”

The other K-State team members include Sunghun Park from the Department of Horticulture and Natural Resources – an expert in biotechnology, plant transformation and plant regeneration – and Doina Caragea from the Department of Computer Science, an expert in machine learning. The project includes creating artificial intelligence models to aid in the discovery of new genome editing tools.

The National Science Foundation awarded the funds to K-State through the Plant Genome Research Program, and the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, better known as EPSCoR.

Liu said the K-State team also is collaborating with fellow scientists Frank White of the University of Florida; Myeong-Je Cho of the University of California-Berkeley; and Hairong Wei of Michigan Technological University.

“A project like this will produce massive (amounts of) molecular data,” Liu said. “It is critical to build a team capable of generating high-quality data and integrating that data to find key molecular factors for plant regeneration.”