AWARD LETS RESEARCHER DEVELOP A WAY TO DECIPHER MYSTERIES OF PLANT GENOMES
COLUMBUS, Ohio – In the 1990s, scientists began mapping the genomes of different organisms. Now their next big step is to uncover the functions of the genes within these genomes.
Venkat Gopalan, an assistant professor of biochemistry at Ohio State University, will receive nearly $750,000 through the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program to develop a method for figuring out the role of each gene in a plant genome. The grant will run for five years.
Gopalan will use the funds to study an enzyme – RNase P – which can block, or turn off, the expression of individual genes. Turning a gene off in a growing plant might provide vital information on the specific trait that the gene controls.
“We want to build a roadmap for the genome, one that can tell us which genes are absolutely essential to the survival or development of an organism,” said Gopalan.
“For instance, the rice genome was completely sequenced last year,” he continued. “But we still don’t understand how the plant decodes that blueprint.”
By using RNase P to block out single genes, Gopalan and his colleagues might be able to determine which genes are responsible for characteristics such as shape, flavor and yield in crops such as rice.
It’s also the rare makeup of RNase P have scientists eagerly investigating this enzyme. Most enzymes are made up only of proteins; RNase P is made up RNA and proteins. That such an enzyme existed surprised the scientists who discovered RNase P nearly two decades ago. Its discovery led to questions and speculation about the rise of cellular life forms.
“RNase P is an evolutionary fossil,” Gopalan said. “Why nature has let this enzyme remain as it is while transforming the makeup of most enzymes to entirely protein is a mystery, especially since protein-based enzymes are far more efficient.”
While studying how RNase P functions in plants may help scientists such as Gopalan learn more about the enzyme’s evolution and continued existence, uncovering the functions of genes by using RNase P as a tool has a more immediate purpose.
“The world’s population is increasing without a proportionate increase in the land on which we cultivate crops,” Gopalan said. “We need to figure out what processes actually control a plant’s susceptibility to stresses such as drought and pathogens.
“With this information in hand, it might become possible to engineer transgenic plants that will contribute to enhanced agricultural productivity.”