Biology faculty member Joanne Dannenhoffer and her students in Central Michigan University’s microscopy program are attacking world hunger by getting right to the kernel of the problem.
Along with researchers at the University of Utah, Iowa State University and the University of Arizona, they are studying corn to learn how modifying its genes could increase yield in areas of drought or other environmental stresses.
“We are doing stuff that no one else is doing,” Dannenhoffer said.
Her team is zeroing in on understanding the kernel’s “regulator genes,” those that act as biological traffic lights that tell groups of genes when to turn on and off, and how that process changes when the corn is subjected to drought.
The research is being funded by a $7.5 million extension of a nearly $5 million National Science Foundation grant awarded in 2009. Three of Dannenhoffer's graduate students and 25 undergraduates have worked on the research project.
“We are interested in the food storage part of
the kernel — the starch and the protein — because that’s what feeds the world.”
— Joanne Dannenhoffer
“If you can understand what happens under normal
conditions, and understand what happens under drought stress,” she said,
“is there something then that you can manipulate to produce a kernel
that will survive under different conditions?”
CMU’s arm of the research plays to the department’s strengths. The team is using its new electron microscopes in the Biosciences Building to study the early development of what’s called the endosperm — the part of the kernel with food value.
“We are interested in the food storage part of the kernel — the starch and the protein — because that’s what feeds the world,” she said. And the more starch and protein it has, the more valuable the kernel is as a food source for animals and humans.
What happens in the endosperm’s 12 formative days greatly impacts later development, she explained.
“If the cells aren’t formed right, if the coordination isn’t right, then you aren’t going to be able to fill it with starch and protein later on.
No one’s looked at it in early development,” she said. “Few people do this kind of microscopic analysis.”
At Central, however, it’s not uncommon for a student to take part in such a study using electron microscopes, said Devon Leroux, a first-year master’s student in biology.
“Other universities have them, but it’s the availability to students that’s not that common,” he said.
And being able to take part in a study that has global implications helps prepare students for the real world, he said.
“Coming out of a place like Central and having been able to utilize theses resources and get the experience makes graduates very marketable.”
Collaboration among the four universities makes the work much more powerful, Dannenhoffer said.
“We are doing different things, but there’s a unified goal of understanding what’s happening.”