Using plant genes for sustainable agriculture
Since joining UNT’s Department of Biological Sciences in 2000, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology Rebecca Dickstein has not only increased the scientific community’s understanding of plant biology, signaling, genetics and symbiotic nitrogen fixation in the legume Medicago truncatula, but also the number of funded research projects that delve into those topics.
Most recently, Dickstein is one of seven scientists who are part of a four-year $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation — $483,405 of which was awarded to UNT — to identify and study key plant genes required for mutually beneficial relationships between microbes in the soil and Medicago truncatula, a close relative of alfalfa. The researchers are studying genes that are essential for symbiotic nitrogen fixation with rhizobia and for the beneficial interaction with symbiotic fungi, which are crucial to sustainable agriculture.
“We originally started this forward genetics project without knowing exactly which genes we would identify, but knowing that they would be significant because they are essential for Medicago to sustain the symbiosis,” says Dickstein, who earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Johns Hopkins University.
In addition to Dickstein, who is a co-PI, the project includes scientists from the Noble Research Institute, the Boyce Thompson Institute, Clemson University and the University of Georgia. It also reunites Dickstein with her former Ph.D. student Catalina Pislariu, now a professor at Texas Woman’s University.
Dickstein says this collaboration has increased the quality and rigor of the research.
“The benefit of working with other scientists is that you don’t necessarily have to have all the resources,” Dickstein says. “You have the benefit of their experience, expertise and resources, as well as your own. That’s huge.”