Biology professor receives NSF Breakthrough Technology Award to enhance food security

Gregory Copenhaver's work aims to find a solution for food shortages around the world by advancing functional genomics and crop breeding.

A graduate student sets up a light-driven reaction with an organic dye.
(Photo by Mary Lide Parker/UNC Research)

Biology professor Gregory Copenhaver has received a Breakthrough Technology Award from the National Science Foundation.

The awards fund research aimed at advancing functional genomics and crop breeding.

With more than 7 ½ billion people on the planet, agriculture enterprise is looking for ways to combat issues related to increasing instances of drought, flood, pests and disease, and that’s at the root of the “high-risk, high-reward” fundamental research in these new Breakthrough Technologies awards.

Imagine crops that required less water because a “wearable sensor” could “grow” along with a plant and provide more accurate and continuous readings of its hydration, ultimately developing more water-efficient plants. Or what about producing maize plants more resilient to environmental stressors because of a better understanding of how certain traits are inherited and achieving this without genetic modifications?

These are the cutting-edge answers that hope to result from a new collaboration between the National Science Foundation, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the United Kingdom Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Copenhaver’s award, shared with Ian Henderson of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom is:

Investigating genetic, epigenetic and environmental control of meiotic recombination using fluorescent crossover reporters in tomato.

The two labs are taking a technology that was developed in the model plant system called Arabidopsis thaliana and recreating it in a crop species, tomato, where it will be used to advance understanding of plan reproductive biology. The technology uses the expression of fluorescent marker proteins in pollen to track how chromosomes segregate. In Arabidopsis, the system was developed using a mutant called quartet which causes the four products of meiosis to remain attached, which in turn allows for researchers to keep track of all the products of any process that occurs in meiosis.

“This is a very powerful type of genetic analysis that has been historically restricted to use in fungi like yeast, but with our work is now available in plants,” Copenhaver said.

“This competition asked scientists and engineers to build new, dramatic solutions to improve crop systems by harnessing all available technologies,” said Anne Sylvester, the NSF program director who oversaw its share of approximately $3 million in funding for Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research to Develop Breakthrough Ideas and Enabling Technologies to Advance Crop Breeding and Functional Genomics.

“Environmental change, population disruption and agricultural needs are profound, global concerns. We expect this research to yield technology breakthroughs that accelerate improvements in how crops respond to sudden environmental stress, unexpected pathogen invasion or other instances where there’s critical need,” Sylvester added.

New technologies can also help discover how crop systems can preserve and better mobilize water and nutrient resources (e.g. high-tech plant wearable sensors), as well as identify how to circumvent genetic constraints to develop new crop varieties. Just as technology has transformed the way people interact and work, these high-risk/high-reward projects are expected to deliver technologies used in functional studies with the potential to produce resilient, efficient and more productive crop systems.

Collectively, the three funding agencies are backing 20 projects, totaling approximately $10 million that will help researchers potentially advance technology that brings more security to crop agriculture of the future.