College of Agriculture & Natural Resources
Plant Science & Landscape Architecture


GREAT GRAINS: New AGNR Faculty Focus on Food for Maryland and the World

A crop of newly hired faculty in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture is strengthening the University of Maryland’s mission to ensure a steady supply of an important nutritional staple by overcoming disease and environmental challenges to grain crops.

Three new assistant professors—YIPING QI, NIDHI RAWAT and VIJAY TIWARI—are applying genomic research in their innovative approaches to wheat and other Maryland
cash crops.

“If we are to meet the demands of feeding the global population in the 21st century, new disease-, drought- and heat resistant wheat cultivars must be developed. However, the
large and complex genome of wheat makes the development of these cultivars extremely difficult and time-consuming,” says ANGUS MURPHY, professor and department chair. “The University of Maryland has assembled a team to enhance the ability to rapidly accelerate wheat breeding and genetic manipulation to meet this global need.”

Qi is making an impact in an exciting emerging area of biological science, in which researchers make targeted changes in the genomes of plants and other organisms.

“Genome editing is about to revolutionize biological research, medicine and agriculture,” he says.
Qi developed an upgrade to CRIPSR, a gene editing technology that Science magazine named “2015 Breakthrough of the Year,” by replacing the Cas9 gene editing protein with the Cfp1 protein. Previous groups have demonstrated gene-editing frequencies generally below 50 percent. Qi’s approach—using self-cleaving ribosomes to facilitate precise processing of the mechanism that mediates DNA targeting—resulted in 100 percent targeted mutations in tests.
That translates to faster, easier plant breeding for research, he says. “Breeding a new wheat variety takes easily a decade, but now you can cut it to maybe just a couple of years,” he says.

Rawat’s groundbreaking research targets a fungal disease, Fusarium Head Blight, that plagues the soft red variety of winter wheat common to Maryland, as well as grains worldwide.
The disease not only reduces the yield but degrades the quality of the wheat, and results in contamination with the evocatively named “vomitoxin”—strictly limited in wheat for
human and animal consumption. Supported by U.S. Department of Agriculture funding,
she identified a gene, Fhb1, that limits the disease’s spread, a discovery published in Nature Genetics. “It is a new type of resistance, and now we are exploring how the gene actually
confers resistance to wheat plants against the fungus,” she says. The fungus targets many other plants as well, so beating it will safeguard a broad spectrum of crops, Rawat says.

Tiwari is focusing on integrated genetic approaches to breeding wheat and other grains with built-in resistance to environmental challenges and biological diseases. That, he says, will help address a central challenge for researchers and farmers: expanding crop yields. “The population keeps growing, and we are not going to change the geography—which means less land for cropping,” Tiwari says. “What this means is that in the coming years, we have to increase crop yields almost two-fold to provide the same amount of food for everyone.”

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