Small RNAs have big implications for crop growth

Small RNAs have big implications for crop growth

COLUMBIA, Missouri — Blake Meyers’ interest in plant science dates back to his childhood, when he helped his mother tend the family flower and vegetable garden in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Today, Meyers is a professor of plant science and technology at the University of Missouri and a research scientist at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, an independent, nonprofit research institute in Saint Louis County. In May, he became the 12th MU faculty to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), one of the highest honors an American scientist can receive.

“Mizzou is a world-class university home with tremendous student and scholar researchers at all levels,” Meyers said. “The Danforth Center is truly plant science-focused, and our strengths are our state-of-the-art facilities as well as our relationships in the St. Louis area, a hub for the biotech and agricultural industries.”

Meyers credits the mentors and supervisors who have helped him through the various stages of his career, and he enjoys paying it back by mentoring the many bright young scientists who work with him at the Danforth Center.

“I can now see where people have gone after working in my lab, in various positions in academia, government and industry,” Meyers said. “It’s gratifying to see the impacts they have, and to think that I may have contributed in a small way to a milestone in their careers is a great honor and privilege.”

UM President Mun Choi said Meyers’ election to the NAS reflects the professor’s deep commitment to excellence in plant science research and UM’s strong reputation as a university of research.

“As AAU’s flagship, land-granting institution, we provide our faculty with state-of-the-art tools and investments so that they can compete nationally,” Choi said. “Our partnership with the Danforth Center expands plant science research through rich collaboration, and we look forward to Professor Meyers’ continued success as he and his colleagues aim to solve some of the greatest challenges in plant science. .

Established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, NAS is a working and active academy whose members advise the nation on issues where scientific knowledge is essential.

Meyers and his team are studying small ribonucleic acid (RNA) — a nucleic acid found in all living cells that shares structural similarities to DNA — in plants to help maximize crop yields, which could have implications massive efforts to fight food insecurity around the world while helping the environment at the same time.

“Our lab studies RNAs, especially those that function in the production of pollen, which plays a key role in the production of hybrid crops,” Meyers said. “Hybrid crops have huge yield advantages; they can produce up to 50% more crop for a given area. So for the same land and the same chemical inputs, you can produce a lot more yield, which is a huge environmental benefit given the growing concerns about environmental degradation and sustainability.

While an undergraduate researcher at the University of Chicago, Meyers studied a species of wildflower. He then worked with lettuce, a billion-dollar crop in California, during his graduate studies at the University of California, Davis. As a postdoc at UC Davis, he began researching the molecular biology of corn, a crop his lab at the Danforth Plant Science Center continues to study today.

“When I was a postdoc, I worked for a company where the goals were more industrial than academic,” Meyers said. “Working on corn and lettuce really gave me an appreciation for the impact of molecular biology on crop yields, and it inspired the work I do today.”

Meyers opened his own lab in 2002 at the University of Delaware, where he began studying Arabidopsis, a plant species known for its usefulness in genetic experiments as a model organism, before moving on to study rice. , soy and corn.

“The technology and molecular tools that we can use to answer our scientific questions have grown incredibly over the past 20 years,” Meyers said. “This includes the ability to quickly sequence the genome of a particular crop of interest, the ability to modify genes in different ways and ask what the result is in terms of plant growth. Microscopy and imaging allow us to drill down below the level of a cell to look at individual molecules, so we can ask where a single RNA of interest is, what cell is it in, what part of the cell is it in? how many copies of this RNA are in this cell and how does one cell type compare to another cell type?”

Meyers moved to St. Louis County in 2016 as part of a joint initiative between the Danforth Plant Science Center and MU to elevate plant science research in the Midwest. Since then, the partnership has generated a growing portfolio of innovations in plant genetics and biotechnology.

“For global challenges, there is climate change, pollution, expanding cities, increasing populations and the demand for limited resources, all of which are straining our production systems and the environment,” Meyers said. “Plants are used for food, fuel and fibre, and are key to a sustainable future, so we need to make sure we are good stewards of our precious resources to help farmers, the environment and improve the human condition.”

Now with his own family, Meyers still tends to his personal garden where he grows cherry tomatoes.

“The joy of science is in pursuing that curiosity and being able to feel and see the products of your labor,” Meyers said. “The pace of scientific advancement continues to increase, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”

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