Lowry awarded NSF grant to explore tradeoffs for resource allocation in plant growth and defense

  • Jul 9, 2019
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  • Jyothi Kumar

David Lowry, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology, has been awarded a three-year grant ($763,491) by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Integrative Ecological Physiology program, part of the Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) division of Biological Sciences (BIO). The primary goal of the funded research is to understand how plants optimize their use of resources when challenged by a combination of stresses in different habitats.

An insect herbivore feeding on the yellow monkeyflower, Mimulus guttatus, in nature.

Lowry’s group will determine the genetic and physiological mechanisms that underlie a plant’s decision of how to allocate limited resources among growth, reproduction, and defense against herbivores. In particular, the research will focus on contrasting evolutionary adaptations in wet habitats, which have many herbivores, versus dry habitats, where rapid growth and flowering is necessary to escape from drought. The research will be conducted with the yellow monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus), which is a model system for ecological and evolutionary genomics. “Mimulus is one of the most widely studied systems by plant evolutionary biologists,” Lowry explained. “New advances, especially recently developed targeted gene manipulation by CRISPR, will make the research we propose possible. It will also likely attract plant biologists with diverse interests to start working on this system.” CRISPR-Cas9 is a technology that allows for direct editing of the genomes of organisms.

Overall, Lowry’s research will address fundamental questions about why trade-offs occur in biology. As Lowry points out, “no biological organism is a jack-of-all-trades, but we don’t have a firm grasp of why that is the case at a mechanistic level.”

The grant also funds an ongoing effort by Lowry and members of the MSU College of Education to develop education modules based on the monkeyflower system for middle school classrooms. “We are developing the module for the seventh-grade classroom, through a partnership with both the Detroit and Flint public schools,” said Lowry. “It has been really amazing to see the students get so excited about growing monkeyflowers and learning to think like scientists in the process.” Funding provided by the grant will allow Lowry and his education collaborators, at the MSU CREATE for STEM Institute (create4stem.msu.edu), to develop an online distribution system, so that teachers can implement the module in their own classrooms nationwide.

The research will be conducted in collaboration with Co-PI Liza Holeski of Northern Arizona University, who is an expert in chemical compounds of monkeyflowers that repel herbivores. Lowry and Holeski are also co-mentoring a postdoc, Kyle Christie, who was recently awarded an NSF postdoctoral collections fellowship to join the Lowry lab in the fall of 2019.