Plant scientists receive $40 M to lead multistate ag programs

Two UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences researchers, Professors Jorge Dubcovsky and David Neale, have received $40 million in federal grants to develop climate-change-tolerant plants and new bioenergy sources.

Dubcovsky and Neale at press conferenceSupported by new U.S. Department of Agriculture grants, Dubcovsky and Neale will lead research teams from more than 50 universities in more than 20 states.

Wheat geneticist Dubcovsky will receive $25 million to head a team that will work to develop new varieties of wheat and barley. Forest tree geneticist David Neale will receive $14.6 million to head a team that will work to sequence the genomes of loblolly pine and two other conifers.

“These are significant investments in very exciting projects,” said Roger Beachy, director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, who came to campus January 12 to personally announce the grants at a news conference. “Each of these projects features transdisciplinary, regional, integrated teams, including scientists from institutions that represent underserved populations. This approach represents a new paradigm in how USDA science can best solve critical issues facing agriculture today.”

UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, also speaking at the news conference, said the grants will help support critically important research endeavors.

Dubcovsky and Neale at press conference“We are honored and pleased that the grant awards recognize the expertise and leadership of UC Davis in the field of plant genomics,” said Katehi. “We look forward to the practical solutions for agriculture and for the environment that will arise from these collaborative projects.”

Wheat genome project

Dubcovsky and his team will focus on biological and environmental stresses to wheat that are caused, at least in part, by alterations in weather patterns associated with global climate change. Dubcovsky’s team includes 55 university and USDA researchers, plant breeders and educators from 21 states.

The researchers will work to identify variations in wheat and barley genes that can enhance the ability of the plants to resist disease, make efficient use of water and nitrogen, and optimize crop yield. These discoveries will help plant breeders develop varieties of wheat and barley that will thrive and be productive despite anticipated climate variability.

The five-year project also will develop a Plant Breeding Education Network to train 30 new doctoral students in plant breeding and provide educational opportunities for 100 undergraduate students interested in plant improvement.

“We have a big need for plant breeders, and one third of the grant will be used to help educate a new generation of breeders,” Dubcovsky said.

Forest tree genome project

By sequencing the genomes of loblolly pine, sugar pine and Douglas fir, Neale and his research colleagues – including Professor Charles Langley from the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences - plan to accelerate breeding efforts for fast-growing varieties of these trees. This would enhance their use as feedstocks for biofuels and biopower.

This is a particularly ambitious project because the genomes of pine tree species are extremely large — as much as 10 times the size of the human genome.

In addition to providing more biofuel resources, increased plantings of these conifers would also contribute to carbon sequestration, capturing and storing carbon from the atmosphere and thus mitigating the effects of climate change.

Collaborating with UC Davis on this five-year project are the Children’s Hospital of Oakland Research Institute, Washington State University, Texas A&M University, Indiana University and the University of Maryland. The pine germplasm, or plant genetic material, to be sequenced comes from the North Carolina State University Cooperative Breeding Program and was produced by a mating made by the Virginia Department of Forestry.

USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative

The wheat and forestry awards were both made through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, the flagship competitive grant program established by the 2008 Farm Bill. The initiative supports research in plant health and production and plant products; animal health and production and animal products; food safety, nutrition and health; renewable energy, natural resources and environment; agriculture systems and technology; and agriculture economics and rural communities.