Josephs awarded NSF grant for uncovering the role of transposable elements in maize variation

  • Aug 20, 2019
  • News
  • Jyothi Kumar

Emily Josephs, Assistant Professor working on plant evolutionary genetics in the Department of Plant Biology, is part of a collaborative team that was awarded a $4 million 5-year NSF Plant Genome Research Program grant to investigate the role of transposable elements in maize (corn) variation.

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The image above shows maize (corn) kernels where Mu TEs have transposed during development (creating the red spots). Photo Courtesy of Josephs

Transposable elements (TEs), also known as "jumping genes" are sequences of DNA that move (or jump) from one location in the genome to another. “TEs make up the majority of plant genomes and vary a lot between species and between individuals in the same species. We still do not have a clear picture of how TEs affect plant traits. With this grant, we will identify TE variation across maize lines and look for relationships between TEs and trait, gene expression, and epigenetic variation” said Josephs. Overall, this work will provide a broad picture of how TEs evolve within maize and help to better link genetic and phenotypic variation that is relevant for plant breeding.

Josephs has worked on methods for identifying quantitative traits that have been shaped by local adaptation and showed that flowering time in maize is locally adapted. She will be using similar approaches to link TE variation to phenotypic traits and adaptation in this project. 

Josephs adds, “This project gets at two big questions that have always fascinated me: first, why is there variation in transposable element activity across populations? Second, what evolutionary forces shape trait variation across populations?”

Other collaborators in this grant include Nathan Springer and Candice Hirsch at the University of Minnesota, Shawn Kaeppler at the University of Wisconsin, and Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra at the University of California, Davis. Josephs is really excited to get to work with a great, collaborative team of other scientists, she says, “We will be generating resources for the whole maize community that will help them do research on TEs. We will also offer Undergraduate Computational Biology Workshops and Carpentry Data Science Workshops at all universities participating in the grant”.