The Joy of Collaboration

Interdisciplinary team uses Joy of Discovery seed grant to launch NSF project

One year ago, a team of plant scientists and biochemists from Mizzou was among faculty awarded the first-ever CAFNR Joy of Discovery Seed Grant funding. Today, that team has parlayed that funding into a $1.25 million National Science Foundation grant that could lead to a deeper understanding of how plant immunity impacts the plant nutrient systems than ever before.

The Joy of Discovery program, through the CAFNR Office of Research, aims to provide faculty with funding for interdisciplinary research that will produce preliminary data to make faculty projects more competitive to major funding sources. It provides up to $20,000 for the first two years, and potentially an additional $15,000 for a third year to collect this data.

“It really pushed us to think about the project and lay out the foundation,” Antje Heese, associate professor of biochemistry, said of the Joy of Discovery program.

Heese was the Principal Investigator (PI) for the Joy of Discovery grant that led to the NSF grant. She is part of a trio of faculty working on the project and studies plants at the cellular level. Scott Peck, professor of biochemistry, studies plant proteins and serves as the PI for the NSF grant. The team is completed with David Mendoza, associate professor of plant sciences and technology, whose research focuses on a bigger picture look at the whole plant. All three faculty are also members of the MU Interdisciplinary Plant Group (IPG), one of CAFNR’s Programs of Distinction.

For their Joy of Discovery project, the researchers focused on just one plant nutrient — iron — and one protein within the plant — Iron-Regulated Transporter 1, also known as IRT1. The group explored how IRT1 regulates iron levels in plants. Heese explained that it was an ideal place to start because it involves an incredibly delicate balance within the plant.

“IRT1 is a ‘Goldilocks’,” she said. “You can’t have too much or too little – it has to be just right.”

The team explained that the plant needs a certain amount of iron for normal functions, including immune response; but bacteria also feed off of iron, so too much provides a feasting ground. Plants obtain iron from the soil, through the roots, but immune responses happen in the leaves, so it is the leaves that are believed to signal the need for iron at the whole plant level. The group found that IRT1 appears to link the two.

The NSF grant will examine the bigger picture looking at additional proteins that may be involved in a larger network coordinating plant nutrient and defense responses with an aim to find patterns and similarities that will lend clues to exactly how these proteins play a role in the communication between leaves and roots and overall nutrient regulation. In addition, these studies will provide more precise localization as to where these mechanisms are taking place.

“If you study just one protein, it can be difficult to spot,” Peck said, “but if you can find five or 10 to examine, it can be easier to find the similarities.”

The collaborative nature of the research team also helps in spotting these patterns. In addition to Heese, Peck and Mendoza, there are currently   two graduate and two undergraduate students from multiple disciplines contributing to the project, with two postdocs joining the team soon. The full team gathers regularly to brainstorm and share their insights, each coming from a different perspective.

These differing perspectives also helped the project stand out when applying for NSF funding.

“In the past, research has focused on one (emphasis area) or another,” Mendoza said, “but this integrative approach is new.”

Heese emphasized that each person on the team adds valuable insight to the project as opposed to “added talk without purpose.”

Another bonus of the collaborative nature of the project is that the faculty feed off of each other’s energy and excitement for the project. When one talks, another’s eyes light up, their brains begin to think and reframe their own work and understanding.

“It’s fun working with people who are just unicorns,” Peck said. “That passion to say, ‘This is really complex, but I think we can crack the code together.’”