The Translational Plant Sciences Center has awarded funding to four new research projects to help them grow and cultivate external funding.

The center provided the projects up to $10,000 a year for up to two years to support the development of innovative research leading to extramural support through the Translational Plant Sciences Center (TPSC) Seed Grant program.

“This program aims to provide faculty with funds to explore new research by establishing teams composed of labs and partners both inside and outside of TPSC and Virginia Tech as a whole,” said Guillaume Pilot, the center's director and associate professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. “Previous iterations have enabled TPSC researchers to produce preliminary data that were foundational for submitting grants to federal agencies, one of them being funded in 2023.”

The purpose of the grant program is to generate preliminary data and build collaborative research teams that will result in the submission of an extramural grant application. 

Eva Colla'kova', associate professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, said her team plans to use the award to develop an affordable and portable Raman device in a backpack, which can be used to detect important matabolic changes in plants.

"There are currently no affordable, portable Raman devices available for field testing," Colla'kova' said.  "The way we envision this would work is after finding problematic parts in the field with drones, a farmer would go there and take leaf measurements with this analyzer to find out which stresses their crops are exposed to.”

(From left) Peter Forstner, a graduate research assistant, and Eva Colla’kova’. Photo by Felicia Spencer for Virginia Tech.

To be considered for funding, faculty are encouraged to have at least one center-affiliated faculty member as a primary investigator and an interdisciplinary team across Virginia Tech, other institutions, or industry. Teams consisting of only center-affiliated faculty might be considered if the work has a high degree of novelty.

“One of the major impacts of this seed grant is that it will expand a previously successful Virginia Tech-American Chestnut Foundation partnership into new areas to attract new external funding for exploring new sources of genetic resistance to chestnut blight, a disease that decimated the American chestnut tree population to near extinction,” said John McDowell, the J.B. Stroobants Professor of Biotechnology in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, who was awarded one of the grants.

This image show the three people with one holding a plastic bag that has a seedling starting to sprout in it.
(From left) Amy Brunner, John McDowell, and Jason Holiday are examining American chestnut seedlings produced in the Brunner lab. Photo courtesy of John McDowell.

This grant also provides more opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to collaborate and gain hand-on research experience.

"I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to work as an undergraduate student in the Schmale Lab alongside Dr. [David ] Schmale, Lola [McMullan], Hope [Gruszewski] , and other staff members,” said Shae Forwood, a senior in animal and poultry sciences. “I am excited for new lab experiences and to play a role in the future of translational plant sciences."

The projects selected for the funding are as follows:

One-year grant

DREAM Sentinels: An Aerosol Sentinel System to Trap, Sense, and Eventually Destroy Airborne Plant Pathogens

  • David Schmale, principal investigator, professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
  • Bastiaan Bargmann, co-principal investigator, assistant professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences 
  • Nastassja Lewinski, associate professor in the College of Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University
  • Wayne Strasser, professor in the School of Engineering at Liberty University

The team plans to engineer phytosensors using plant tissue culture to sense and destroy obligate plant pathogens and then to deploy an aerosol sentinel system to trap airborne microbes. Preliminary data generated from this seed funding will be used to support the submission of a National Science Foundation DREAM Sentinels proposal.

Two-year grants

Development of a virus-induced transformation-free genome editing system in wheat for molecular breeding and gene function exploration

  • Xiaofeng Wang, principal investigator, associate professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences 
  • Bastiaan Bargmann, co-principal investigator, assistant professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences
  • Nicholas Santantonio, co-principal investigator, assistant professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences
  • Yongliang Zhang, professor at China Agricultural University

The team will establish an editing system where engineered viruses deliver guide RNAs and lead to editing events in meristem cells plants expressing the Cas9 enzyme to facilitate breeding and gene function exploration in cereal crops.

Developing and testing a portable Raman spectrometer for quantitative crop trait and stress phenotyping

  • Eva Colla’kova’, principal investigator, associate professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences
  • Ryan Senger, co-principal investigator, associate professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering and chief technical engineer of Rametrix Technologies 
  • John Robertson, co-principal investigator, research professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics and CEO of Rametrix Technologies

The team proposes to design, develop, and test a compact Raman device prototype with a leaf-holding attachment that would enable more accurate quantitative phenotyping of field crops. In plant breeding, the analyzer will help speed up the selection of new stress-tolerant crop varieties or varieties with improved nutritional quality. The seed funding will enable the initial testing of various analyzer prototypes to get preliminary data for the large U.S. Department of Agriculture-Small Business Innovation Research proposal that would allow a large-scale testing and commercialization of the backpack Raman analyzer.

Genomic Tools for American Chestnut Restoration

The team plans to develop a platform for rapid testing of candidate genes for chestnut blight resistance, which members have identified through a variety of functional and population genomic approaches, to enable diversification and stacking of resistance mechanisms in existing transgenic and hybrid restoration populations.

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