The Roots in Drought Grant: An Oral History

The Roots in Drought Grant: An Oral History

In March 2016, an interdisciplinary group from across the Mizzou campus received exciting news. After three attempts, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded these researchers a $4.2 million grant to study how drought impacts the growth of nodal roots in corn. 

We just kept grinding away. And I think that’s probably why, the third submission as far as NSF, that we finally got this project funded,” said Dr. Scott Peck professor of Biochemistry, “But I think that persistence means something. That we were all on board and we weren’t just going to let it go away.” 

Although interdisciplinary collaborative research is nothing new, the way the group came together and persevered to be able to perform this research is unique. 

With members from plant sciences, biochemistry, engineering, arts & sciences and journalism, this  group of University of Missouri researchers formed a team with a universal goal— advancing crop research and facilitating a collaborative learning opportunity. 

The players

Bob Sharp, Principal Investigator: 

Sharp, Director of the Division of Plant Sciences and IPG, specializes in water stress and root physiology. Sharp coordinates model system experiments for multi-omics sample collection, and oversees integration of project activities.

Felix Fritschi, Co-Principal Investigator: 

Fritschi, a Plant Physiology associate professor, specializes in crop physiology and examines nodal root growth in response to water deficit stress under field conditions. He coordinates field experiments conducted in the drought simulator and ensures integration of field and model system activities. 

Mel Oliver, Co-Principal Investigator:

Oliver, a Plant Sciences adjunct professor and retired research leader for USDA-ARS, coordinates metabolomic experiments (external and in-house) hormone analyses, performs sequencing of the FR697 genome, assists transcriptomics, and liaises with the bioinformatic integration of data.  

Scott Peck, Co-Principal Investigator: 

Peck, a Biochemistry professor, studies changes in proteins and protein modifications to understand how plants respond to environmental stresses. He examines changes in the protein composition of the plasma membrane using mass spectrometry to identify proteins that may contribute to improved root growth during low water availability.

Trupti Joshi, Co-Principal Investigator: 

Joshi, an associate professor at MU and Director of Translational Bioinformatics, 

enables bioinformatics capabilities for data management, creates informatic data analysis pipelines, manages multi-omics data integration methods, oversees the grant database, and generates hypotheses and tests informatics techniques. 

David Braun, Co-Principal Investigator:

Braun, a Biological Sciences professor, specializes in understanding which sugar metabolism and transport processes are increased to provide more carbohydrate resources to roots under drought to enable their continued growth and soil exploration.

Jon Stemmle, Co-Principal Investigator: 

Stemmle, a Strategic Communication professor in the School of Journalism, leads communication efforts to communicate findings and activities related to the grant. By working with the grant team, he also leads a group of journalism students to create multimedia stories and other materials in plain language. 

Part I: “Feels a little like the movie Oceans 11”

Many of the players already knew each other before the grant proposal was created through the Interdisciplinary Plant Group, directed by Bob Sharp. 

Sharp: “The IPG is a campus wide community of plant biologists on the UM campus,” said Dr. Bob Sharp, primary investigator of the grant and director of the Division of Plant Sciences and IPG. “It was initiated in 1981 before I came here. I joined in 1986 and have been a member ever since.”

Mel Oliver: Getting involved in IPG was easy. It was more as soon as I arrived, really. You know I was an adjunct professor with plant sciences and with my area of expertise with this sort of molecular biology/physiology/stress responses. There were a lot of colleagues I could touch on and they were involved in IPG so it was like a no-brainer. 

With the foundation set through IPG, the next step was to assemble the team to make this innovative research project happen.

Sharp: We put a team together that has expertise in many areas of plant science related topics to gain a comprehensive understanding of how the nodal roots of maize are responding to drought conditions in the lab and in the field.

Felix B. Fritschi: As we were thinking about the opportunity, we were thinking about what other expertise do we need? And that’s how everyone else got in. 

Oliver: I started a project looking at transcription factors of roots in the specific water deficit stress. And that’s sort of when my association with Bob became fairly close. And then we wrote– there was an opportunity for a big grant. I think because of an opportunity the university was setting up. It was a drought center we were trying to create and then the money didn’t appear and so that sort of evolved into the plant genome grant which we did get eventually.

Joshi: About 2013 is when I started interacting with this grant. They had submitted the grant one time before I joined the team and had gotten the critical reviews back. And definitely one of the pieces that lacked at that point was the strengths coming from bioinformatics. Because the grant is focused on a gene, protein and metabolite expression level. But it really did not provide any foundation as to how everything was going to be integrated because ultimately you are still studying the same system. You don’t want to look at them individually. It’s all happening in the corn drought system together so how can we use more cutting edge informatics or computation methods to go beyond these layers? And maybe try to make more predictions from it. You can now have more things to go forward and test.

Stemmle: I was the oddball of the group and the last one to join. David and Mel sent me an email about the project and asked if I could meet. It sounded interesting and they let me help craft what the journalism side would look like. It felt like a great opportunity and so I was in. Looking back now, it feels a little like the movie Oceans 11 and how they brought together this disparate group of people for this great mission. 

Braun: We recognized that collaboratively we could create something very unique and interesting. 

Sharp: I feel first and foremost a member of the IPG and I happen to be in the Division of Plant Sciences, but look at this grant – David Braun is in Biological Sciences, which in Arts & Sciences, Mel Oliver is in the USDA Plant Genetics Unit, Scott Peck is in Biochemistry – it doesn’t matter we are IPG colleagues. That is what the IPG has accomplished. We know each other. We know what our interests are.  

Peck: The idea is “let’s all succeed together,” rather than my success coming at the expense of someone else’s. 

Braun: Modern science isn’t done in isolation. We each have our own expertise and if we stick within that, we are limited in the questions that we can address.

Peck: We figure, like many things in science, those new questions are going to be more in our line of interest and so there is always going to be some aspects of collaboration, but we are going to have growth that more specifically, in our realms of interest or realms of study, we end up growing into [individually].

Oliver: It’s like when you are a student and you get in a group where everyone has a focal interest, but they all come at it from a different angle and therefore you get a much more enriched experience. 

Part II: “Understanding nodal root biology in response to drought is important.”

Fritschi: We (Sharp and I) are both interested in roots, so it’s natural to go after bigger money together and to build off of his research in controlled conditions. And to try to see how it works in the field, which is close to my heart.

Sharp: One of the goals of the grant is to find to what extent are the nodal roots similar or different to primary roots.

Fritschi: They (primary roots) are deeper in the soil in the field making it very hard to get intact root tips out of the soil. Whereas the nodal roots grow from someplace near the top of the soil and are much easier to get to.

Sharp: Felix was really important in discussions that led to the idea of working on nodal roots and going from the lab to the field. Because in the field for a plant like maize, wheat, sorghum, they all have a nodal root system– so understanding nodal root biology in response to drought is important. Not only in maize, it is important globally as well.

Fritschi: Nodal roots are so important. For me, that was a critical aspect because that is what I am interested in because it is particularly relevant to farmers. Just a very good intersection of the ability to do it and the importance of nodal roots.

Part III: “It’s kind of a drought umbrella” 

Felix: We do many different things outside of this grant. All under the umbrella of plant adaptation to different and changing environments. Drought being a big one of those. So it’s kind of a drought umbrella. When plants experience drought they often experience heat. So the interaction of the drought/heat interaction. And the interaction with nutrition since nutrients come into the plant with water. The availability of water influences the ability to for nutrient uptake as well. So that’s kind of the bigger theme of the lab. Like I said, we study plants at the whole plant level.

Sharp: In order to study drought in the field in Missouri it’s necessary to have the “drought simulators” or “rainout shelter facilities” because while drought is typically important every year somewhere in Missouri– if not the whole state– Missouri can also have extreme rain conditions, flooding conditions and sometimes you get the two back to back. Because a big thunderstorm might come along and then you are no longer doing a drought experiment.

Trupti Joshi: This grant addressed the question about how much reproducibility to do. You can also see by doing it in the greenhouse as well as simultaneously doing it in the field. Do you see a lot of differences? Or is it about the same similarity? The goal is to learn things from the greenhouses because the environment is more controllable, but you want to be sure that it acts the exact same way in the field. And that’s where you are going to be able to take it back to farmers or back to agricultural food production and things like that. 

Felix: We use the rainout shelters so we have control over water availability so we can more reliably impose the stress. The extent of stress imposition is still going to be a function of the weather conditions but sunny, warmer, dry air, the soil and plants will dry out faster opposed to on a cloudy day. We don’t have control over that but at least we don’t have control over the water that’s added to the system. We can control it with the rainout shelters. And so the big differences are the weather still, in terms of light intensity, relative humidity, temperatures can differ dramatically from day to day over the course of an experiment as opposed to control conditions. The soil is different. In controlled conditions it is media and in the field it is true soil. 

Part IV: “This is the only time in my career where everyone fits.”

Braun: There are no students or post docs who are working on the project who are only reporting to one professor. Everybody is working under two or three different professors. As sort of a risk management model. It is very unique. I hadn’t done that previously on a grant. It seems to be working exceptionally well to give the students, technicians, etc., really broad training. It really promotes more synergy and more bonding between the professors. 

Mel: This is the only time in my career where everyone fits. There’s not an outsider. There’s not someone you shift off and say you do your thing and then we will worry about it. In this group we all discuss everything openly and friendly and it’s sometimes we disagree, sometimes we agree.

Peck: Collaborations become productive when there is a group attitude. Through friendships and trust you feel more comfortable with initiating collaboration and working together based on personalities and interests.

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