CANR announces 2012 Benton graduate student award winners

June 25, 2012 under CANR News

The University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) has announced the winners of the 2012 William J. Benton Graduate Student Awards. The 2012 recipients are Rachael Vaicunas, Jixian Zhai and Kirsten Hirneisen.

The awards were established in honor of William J. Benton, former CANR associate dean of research and professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences (ANFS).

Rachael Vaicunas

Vaicunas received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Department of Bioresources Engineering, and she said that studying in the department “was a great experience because it provided me with valuable skills that will be useful for my future as an engineer.”

She is researching water quality throughout the state of Delaware, specifically looking at “concentrations of hormones and antibiotics in surface waters across the state and how different land uses affect water quality.”

Vaicunas said that receiving the Benton Award has made her “feel like I brought value to the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.” She also wanted to acknowledge her graduate adviser, Shreeram Inamdar, associate professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences (PLSC), as she called him “a great mentor and motivator throughout my time at UD.”

Jixian Zhai

Zhai, a doctoral student in CANR, said his research focuses on understanding the roles of small RNA molecules in plant development and disease resistance. He conducts his research by utilizing high throughput sequencing technology, studying the small RNA molecules in a variety of plant species.

Zhai said that he is “really honored to receive this award and very grateful to the donors who always support graduate research in CANR. I believe this is an important step in my career and I am deeply motivated to live up to the expectation of this prestigious award.”

Zhai called his adviser, Blake Meyers, Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences and chair of the department, an “extraordinary adviser” and he wanted to thank Meyers for “all the guidance as well as the freedom that he gave me on my research.”

Kirsten Hirneisen

Hirneisen, also a doctoral student in CANR, said that receiving the Benton Award is “a great honor. Past recipients have been wonderful students and great scientists and it’s a wonderful feeling to be associated with them through this award.”

Hirneisen’s area of research is microbial food safety and she said that she enjoys working in the field because it encompasses many different areas. “As a food safety microbiologist; I get to be involved in all these areas to control hazards from the field to fork.”

Her doctoral research focuses on “the enteric viruses, including Hepatitis A Virus and human noroviruses, and their interactions with fresh produce in a field environment. The impacts of my research helps assess the risk of human pathogen contamination of produce and aids in the development of strategies to ensure a safe food supply.”

Hirneisen said that her adviser Kali Kniel, associate professor of ANFS, has been “a wonderful mentor to me and a great role model.”

Article by Adam Thomas

This article can also be viewed on UDaily

 

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UD researchers identify novel regulatory network within legumes

January 26, 2012 under CANR News

Three collaborating laboratories in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at the University of Delaware — those of professors Blake Meyers, Janine Sherrier and Pamela J. Green — recently identified a novel regulatory network within legumes, including in alfalfa and soybean plants.

The work was performed predominantly by Jixian Zhai, a doctoral student in the department and was published in the December issue of the prestigious journal Genes & Development, one of the top journals in molecular biology and genetics. The genomics project was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Conducting their research at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute (DBI), the investigators set out to get a comprehensive view of how small RNAs function in legumes and how they might be important to these plant species. They focused their work on the chromosomal sequences (genome) of Medicago, a legume genus that includes both the crop plant alfalfa and the species that was recently sequenced, Medicago truncatula.

The researchers sequenced libraries containing millions of small RNAs, important gene regulatory molecules, as well as the genes targeted by these small RNAs. Using advanced computational techniques to categorize the RNA sequences, they identified a novel function for a handful of “microRNAs” — special small RNAs that direct the targeted destruction of specific protein-coding messenger RNAs.

Among these plant microRNAs, the team determined that many target genes encode NBS-LRRs, or “guard proteins” that function in defense against pathogenic microbe infiltration. These NBS-LRRs function as an immune system to battle pathogens but presumably must be suppressed to allow the interactions with beneficial microbes for which legumes are particularly well known. The result of this microRNA targeting is a complex network of co-regulated small RNAs that Zhai characterized using a set of computational and statistical algorithms and analyses.

“The NBS-LRRs keep pathogens out, but these plant cells are still allowing beneficial microbes to enter,” says Sherrier. “The regulation of genes encoding NBS-LRR proteins has been largely unknown until now.”

Over time, these mechanisms have evolved into a more elaborate system in legumes to take advantage of this defense-suppressing system and facilitate the development of nodules, the specialized root structures of legumes in which the beneficial plant-microbe interactions take place.

“We may have found the ‘switch’ that recognizes good versus bad microbes,” adds Meyers, Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor and chair of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. “These guard proteins usually trigger cell death when a pathogen is recognized, but the plant cell is triggering cell death when it encounters a ‘good’ microbe. The circuit we identified may play a role in preventing cell death when the microbe is a friend.”

This discovery could ultimately prove important to the improvement of plant-microbe interactions in other crop plants by allowing plants to become healthier by letting in the good microbes, but keeping the pathogens out.

“We didn’t expect to find something as exciting as this,” says Sherrier. “It’s exciting because no one knows about this kind of gene control and also because it is showing us the diverse interaction between plants and bacterium as well as plants and fungi that could help us develop better mechanisms in other plants, like Arabidopsis.”

“Beyond the applied significance, the finding that NBS-LRR genes are key targets opens up a new frontier for basic research,” says Green, Crawford H. Greenewalt Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences.

If this diverse regulation of beneficial microbes could be added to other crop plants, it could mean scientists could program the plants to grow stronger and taller with less water, and even fertilize themselves.

Article by Blake Meyers and Laura Crozier

Photos by Evan Krape and Kathy F. Atkinson

This article was originally published on UDaily

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