And the Winners Are…

by | Feb 4, 2016

S. lycopersicum & S. lycopersicoides

The tomato plant (S. lycopersicum) on the left can interbreed with its more genetically diverse but less delicious wild relative (S. lycopersicoides) on the right.

The winners of the latest competition of the Triad Foundation’s Plants and Human Health grant program have just been announced. Winning proposals include research projects that strive to improve the nutritional content of tomatoes, investigate tomato disease resistance in wild relatives and explore aspects of a plant-fungal relationship that could reduce fertilizer usage.

The Triad Foundation funds this internal competition at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) to promote innovative research and technology development that will ultimately improve human health. These discovery-driven research projects can have a direct medical application downstream or can benefit humans by improving food quality or by making agriculture more environmentally friendly. The applications also proposed research to spark new collaborations or open up novel lines of inquiry for BTI scientists, often with a focus on high-risk, high-reward projects that are difficult to fund through traditional sources.

“This grant competition is meant to provide ‘seed money’,” said VP for Research Eric Richards, who organized the competition. “It’s designed to be used for new ideas that allow people to move in new directions.” Once researchers have generated preliminary data, they are encouraged to apply for continued support from federal granting agencies. A recent paper resulting from a collaboration between the Harrison and Mueller group is one such project.

A review panel composed of BTI faculty selected the winning proposals.

The funding is part of a generous 1.4 million, 4-year award given by the Triad Foundation in 2015, which included support for the first high-resolution mass spectrometer on campus. BTI has had a long and productive relationship with the Triad Foundation and their support gives scientists the flexibility to pursue numerous important research projects.

“The Triad Foundation is proud to continue its relationship with the Boyce Thompson Institute, which goes back to my father, Roy H. Park, who joined the board in 1984,” said Roy H. Park Jr., the president of the Triad Foundation. “BTI is doing great scientific work that represents his legacy, and we are happy to support scientists making a real impact.”

This year, Susan Strickler, a research associate in the laboratory of Lukas Mueller, Sarah Hind, a postdoctoral researcher in Greg Martin’s laboratory, and Ari Feder, a postdoctoral researcher with Jim Giovannoni, in collaboration with their project leaders, submitted a successful proposal to sequence the genome of the nightshade species Solanum lycopersicoides, a wild relative of the tomato.

Worldwide, tomatoes are the vegetable crop with the highest commercial value and serve as a major source of vegetable-derived nutrients, including vitamins and antioxidants. During domestication, the tomato lost much of its genetic diversity, which has hindered attempts to improve the crop through selective breeding.

Wild relatives of the tomato can interbreed with cultivated varieties and so they represent a valuable resource of novel genes that can potentially improve nutrition and disease resistance in tomato crops. Feder is already cultivating S. lycopersicoides to identify genes involved in fruit quality and nutrition, and Hind is looking for disease resistance genes that would reduce the need for pesticides. Strickler will assemble and annotate the genome for use as a model system for studying genome evolution in the nightshade family. The genome may also be of interest to seed companies involved in tomato improvement.

“A high quality genome is a huge resource. Once you publish it, the genome is in the public domain,” said Strickler. However, sequencing projects like this one are difficult to fund through traditional granting agencies—the price tag is too large to tack onto a related grant, but the project is too small to be funded on its own. When the Triad competition was announced, Hind realized it was the perfect opportunity.

A second successful collaborative project, submitted by project leaders Carmen Catalá, Zhangjun Fei and Jim Giovannoni, will also investigate hybrids between different tomato species to identify genes that are targets for breeding and plant improvement. The group will not only identify candidate genes with potential to enhance the nutritional value of fruit, such as vitamin and antioxidant content, but will also develop a pipeline to streamline the identification of genetic variation.

A third grant was awarded to Maria Harrison, BTI’s William H. Crocker Professor, to fund her project using electron microscopy to investigate structures within plant roots formed as part of their symbiotic relationship with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi form tree-like clusters within root cells so that they can transport soil minerals in exchange for carbon from the plant. By optimizing this relationship through selective breeding, scientists aim to develop plants that can thrive in poor soils and with fewer fertilizer applications. The project will also bring a new high-resolution electron microscopy technique to the Harrison lab and to BTI.

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