Professor Daniel Zilberman Wins $2.1 Million NSF Grant

September 29, 2010
Dan Zilberman

Professor Daniel Zilberman of Plant & Microbial Biology has won a $2.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study how to develop new technologies that will increase crop yields, directly addressing the problem of hunger in our society.

In addition, the grant contains a component to attract new students to science by incorporating undergraduate students into the research program. As part of the grant, students will be recruited from UC Berkeley's Biology Scholars Program to assist in the research.

Plant seeds are made up of embryos supported by a nutritive tissue called endosperm. In cereal crops such as rice the endosperm occupies the bulk of the seed and serves as a major source of food to the world's population. Full understanding of how seeds develop is of huge significance to future crop improvement.

Additionally, there is now evidence that direct genomic changes that help to regulate seed development. Genetic and molecular studies have shown that endosperm development is regulated by methylation, in which methyl groups are added to DNA and associated proteins.

This direct change to the DNA can influence the size and quality of a seed, part by regulating gene expression that is specific to a parent genome, known as genomic imprinting. In rice, as in most other important crops, the epigenetic landscapes of gametes and seeds are unknown. To understand epigenetic regulation of rice seed development, this project will analyze DNA methylation, identify modifications to the DNA-associated proteins, called histones, and characterize small RNAs in rice seed tissues.

The project will quantify gene expression, identify imprinted genes, and will use bioinformatic methods to identify rice pathways regulated by genomic imprinting.

"The goal here is to lead to better varieties of rice." Zilberman said. "Information and research gathered will be used to engineer better crops." Zilberman emphasized that much of the research and understanding of these complicated issues is still at the beginning stages.

This research focuses in on the endosperm, the nourishing tissue of a seed. Seeds are made up of three components: the seed coat, the embryo and the endosperm.

"The aim of the grant is to understand in some depth what's happening in rice seeds," Zilberman said.

Nearly half of the world food supply is provided by the proteins, carbohydrates and nutrients stored in properly developed endosperm. Imprinted genes specifically influence seed yield by controlling resource allocation to the endosperm. The outcomes from this project will enable new technologies that increase crop yield to feed a growing population, thereby directly addressing the problem of hunger in our society.

Co-Principal Investigator for the award is Robert Fischer of UC Berkeley, and Senior Personnel include Pamela C. Ronald of UC Davis and Takashi Okamoto of Tokyo Metropolitan University.

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