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Clemson Professor Awarded Nearly $600,000 4-year Grant to Study Language of Plants

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Clemson University researcher Julia Frugoli has received $132,769 as the first installment of a nearly $600,000 four-year grant from the National Science Foundation to continue her study of how plant roots and shoots communicate with each other to control their growth and development.

The work by Frugoli, an associate professor in Clemson University's College of Agriculture, Forestry & Life Sciences’ genetics and biochemistry department, could help give farmers the ability to grow plants without nitrogen fertilizer and could dramatically increase the world’s food supply.

Although nitrogen makes up more than 70 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere and is essential to all forms of life, atmospheric nitrogen is chemically unavailable to living organisms until it has been biochemically converted into a reduced form by the process of nitrogen fixation. Leguminous plants have root nodules housing bacteria that do this naturally. Since legumes provide 33 percent of human nutrition in the world, a more detailed understanding of nodule development and the plant control of nodulation would benefit agricultural production, both in legumes and other plants.

Frugoli uses molecular genetics and the small legume Medicago truncatula to clone and analyze genes involved in nodule regulation in plant roots. The long-term research goal is to transfer the genes that allow nitrogen-fixing capacity in food crops that don’t, including corn and rice.

“This ultimate goal of corn and rice producing root nodules to fix nitrogen is most likely decades in the future,” said Frugoli. “In the meantime, one of our research goals is to use the knowledge of how plants control growth and development — how the roots and shoots communicate — to enable the modification of agricultural plants to produce higher yields on existing agricultural land.”

As part of the National Science Foundation’s focus on broader impacts, Frugoli will train doctoral students, undergraduates and high school students in both science and responsible conduct of research.

“Science is about discovering the truth, and it only discovers the truth if it is based on ethical conduct. For this reason as a graduate student I became interested in teaching responsible conduct of research and research ethics,” said Frugoli.

Frugoli teaches best practices in research ethics through her appointment with the Rutland Institute for Ethics Clemson University and in collaboration with Clemson’s Office of Research Compliance.

To learn more about Clemson University's graduate program in Genetics and Biochemistry, please visit http://www.grad.clemson.edu/programs/Genetics/. To learn more about Clemson University's graduate program in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, please visit http://www.grad.clemson.edu/programs/Biochemistry/.