With support from a new National Science Foundation grant, two Iowa State University researchers are exploring fundamental, yet-unanswered questions about how hormones regulate cell wall properties during plant development. In the process, they plan to engage college students and foster an appreciation for plants among Iowa’s youngest learners.

The three-year, $985,450 award for the project, “Regulation of Root Meristem Differentiation by Cell Wall Composition” comes through NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research and the Developmental Systems Cluster. It funds work by Dior Kelley, assistant professor of genetics, development and cell biology, and Olga Zabotina, professor of biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology.

Their focus will be to better understand the role of one particular plant enzyme, GAUT10, which synthesizes cell wall polysaccharides — carbohydrates made up of multiple sugar molecules bonded together. GAUT10 is regulated by the plant hormone auxin that maintains root stem cells. Plants, like animals, rely on proper stem cell regulation to control organ growth.

Their research builds on previous work by Kelley and her lab, which identified GAUT10 as a key player in root growth that helps form building blocks of plant cell walls.

Roots are the key source for water and nutrient acquisition, but according to the scientists, roots are understudied compared to shoots that are above ground. They plan to apply genetic, biochemical and microscopic approaches to better understand the mechanisms that form and maintain roots.

“Cell walls are made of a lot of sugar-based polymers that change over time as development occurs,” Kelley said. “This influences how they acquire biomass, sequester carbon and deal with environmental challenges like water stress. So, in the long run, having a better understanding of roots and their properties has global environmental importance.”

“GAUT10, the particular protein we’re focusing on, is quite unique. It seems to be important for ‘patterning’ the root — providing identity to differentiate into various types of cells as the plant’s original stem cells develop and grow. That’s the main hypothesis we’re testing in this grant.”

Much of the laboratory work to answer their questions will be carried out by graduate and undergraduate students involved in the university’s STEM Scholar Program, which aims to recruit and retain underserved students, an aspect of the research built into the NSF grant.

“This is a great opportunity to do hands-on research at a pretty high level, and graduate students will train and mentor younger scientists,” Zabotina said. “Such work is valuable to help students apply what they are learning in classes to real lab methods and routines. Providing students with this kind of experience is something both of us are passionate about.”

Not only will the project educate today’s emerging plant scientists, it will also nurture those of the future. A portion of the grant will allow further development of a budding Botany4Tots program created by Kelley for her son’s pre-K classrooms in Ames.

“My husband and I are both plant scientists,” she said. “We found that there are some very good programs that incorporate plant science for K-12 classes, but pre-K classes lag far behind. Yet kids at that age are very curious and excited to learn about the world around them – and plants are a huge part of our landscape.”

The program’s initial set of modules is organized around the seasons and seasonal changes that plants go through – something children can readily observe. The grant will support the involvement of college students in helping create and test lessons that connect art and science, music and activities, with the goal of making it easy for teachers to engage young children in learning about plants.