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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Agricultural science could make huge leaps forward if scientists had reliable ways to examine seeds and accurately predict the physical characteristics of the fully grown plants that would result.
University of Florida forest genetics expert Matias Kirst leads a multi-institution academic team that recently obtained a four-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop better methods of predicting the traits spawned by individual genes and groups of genes in plants, in this case the Eastern cottonwood tree, Populus deltoides.
“We’re thrilled that our previous work in this area has put us in a position to win this critical grant to help us bridge some important gaps in trait prediction,” said Kirst, an associate professor with the UF School of Forest Resources and Conservation, part of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, or UF/IFAS.
The grant award provides more proof that the UF/IFAS forest genetics program is among the best in the world, said Jack Payne, UF senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources.
“Matias Kirst is one of our bright stars in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation,” Payne said. “This grant will support world-class scientific investigation that could make it much faster and easier to determine which new crop cultivars have commercial potential or other significant value.”
The team includes three co-principal investigators, William Barbazuk, an associate professor with UF’s biology department; Marcio Resende, chief executive officer with the genetic analysis firm RAPiD Genomics; and biostatistics expert Gustavo de los Campos, an associate professor with Michigan State University
The researchers are especially interested in exploring how genomics affect gene expression, Kirst said. In turn, this information will be linked to how genes contribute to economically important traits, including disease and pest tolerance, drought resistance and productivity.
Kirst is well-known for excellence in research, outreach and teaching, and was an ideal candidate to serve as principal investigator on the project, said Jackie Burns, UF/IFAS dean for research and director of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station, which oversees the entire UF/IFAS research enterprise.
“Matias has made great strides forward in using analytical methods that simplify this research field,” Burns said.
The Eastern cottonwood was chosen for the project, Kirst said, because the tree hasn’t been subject to many breeding efforts, whereas popular commodity crops have often been so selectively bred that scientists can’t access the plant’s original suite of genetic variations easily. With Eastern cottonwood, the team has access to a large population of adult trees that includes many naturally occurring genetic variations.
“We already have identified the genes that control some traits in Eastern cottonwood,” Kirst said. “So we’re adding on top of that, looking into things like the factors controlling gene expression and protein synthesis, because knowing that could help give us the full picture of how DNA sequence gives rise to a whole plant.”
Writer: Tom Nordlie, 352-273-3567, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources: Matias Kirst, 846-0900, email@example.com
Jack Payne, 352-392-1971, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jackie Burns, 352-392-1784, email@example.com
Photo cutline: Forest genetics expert Matias Kirst, an associate professor with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, leads a team that recently won a four-year, $2 million federal grant to improve methods for predicting the traits adult plants will possess, by analyzing the DNA in seeds. UF/IFAS photo by Tyler L. Jones