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David Drewry, Ph.D., is co-PI on a project to study the plant proteins that affect drought resistance.
David Drewry, Ph.D., is co-PI on a project to study the plant proteins that affect drought resistance.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hub of the international Structural Genomics Consortium will partner with the University of California, Davis to study the genes of rice plants responsible for root growth. The scientists will create an open source database and lay the groundwork for developing new varieties of drought resistant crops.

The work is supported by a $1 million Seeding Solutions grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, a nonprofit established in the 2014 Farm Bill with bipartisan congressional support. The FFAR grant has been matched with funding from the UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health, the SGC, AgBiome and Promega for a total investment of $2.3 million.

SGC researchers in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy will collaborate with researchers at UC-Davis, the University of Montreal and the University of Toronto to study the genes that control root development. The project targets protein kinases, enzymes that control diverse biological process in plants, such as root architecture and drought response. Genes corresponding to kinases discovered in this project will be further characterized using a recently established comprehensive collection of mutants to assess their roles in root system architecture and drought tolerance. Genes discovered and analyzed in this project could lead to the development of drought-resistant rice.

David Drewry, Ph.D., an associate professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, a member of the SGC-UNC and co-principal investigator of the project, will direct the work based in Chapel Hill.

“UNC is helping to drive open science beyond medicine into crop science with our knowledge of kinase inhibition and drug design and our collection of human kinase inhibitors,” Drewry said. “Human kinases and plant kinases are similar enough that human kinase inhibitors will also inhibit plant kinases, so we feel we can leverage the work done on human kinases to gain a foothold on plant kinase inhibition.”

Drewry said his team will use the inhibitors of human kinases to identify tool molecules that help them understand the elements of plant biology that are important in root growth. The goal is identify plant genes that affect root growth and use that knowledge to improve the drought resistance of important crops.

“The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research is encouraged by the collaborative nature of this research,” said Sally Rockey, executive director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. “This project is a prime example of how public-private partnerships can advance our understanding of plant genetics to develop crops resistant to drought and other climate extremes.”

The research is being led by principal investigator Pamela Ronald, Ph.D., in the Department of Plant Pathology and the Genome Center at UC-Davis.

To accomplish their goals, the team will create and characterize a set of kinase inhibitors that collectively inhibit most of the kinases in rice. The starting point will be approximately 1,000 human kinase inhibitors carefully selected from a library of chemical compounds donated to the SGC from eight pharmaceutical companies. The set will be distributed without restriction to scientists studying other plants and traits, thus serving as a broadly useful platform. The team has agreed to operate under open access principles that specifically prohibiting filing for intellectual property on any of the results and will communicate the findings widely.

“I am delighted to work with this talented and diverse team of researchers to advance rice genetics research. We are grateful for FFAR support that has allowed us to launch this project,” Ronald said.

“The pharmaceutical industry has poured resources into the study of human kinase inhibitors for drug discovery,” Drewry said. “We are excited to leverage this investment and apply what we have learned to the important problem of water scarcity. An open science approach will allow us to build our understanding of genes that influence root growth more effectively and efficiently.”

Researchers on this project include:

  • David Drewry, Ph.D., co-PI, professor at the University of North Carolina
  • Aled Edwards, Ph.D., collaborator, professor at the University of Toronto and director of the Structural Genomics Consortium
  • Rafael Najmanovich, Ph.D., collaborator, professor at the University of Montreal

This project is supported by FFAR through its Seeding Solutions grant program, which calls for bold, innovative, and potentially transformative research proposals in the Foundation’s seven Challenge Areas. This grant supports the Overcoming Water Scarcity Challenge Area, which aims to increase the efficiency of water use in agriculture, reduce agricultural water pollution, and develop water reuse technologies.


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