Small RNA has big implications for crop growth

COLOMBIA, MO – Blake Myers’ interest in plant science goes back to his childhood, when he helped his mother take care of the family’s flower and vegetable garden in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Today, Myers is a professor of plant science and technology at the University of Missouri and a researcher at the Donald Danforth Center for Plant Science, an independent, not-for-profit research institute in St. Louis County. In May, it became Twelfth faculty members will be elected in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and it is one of the highest honors an American scientist can receive.

“Mizzou is a world-class academic home with a huge number of students and researchers from faculty at all levels,” said Myers. “The Danforth Center really focuses on plant sciences, and our strengths are our state-of-the-art facilities as well as our relationships across the St. Louis area, which is a hub for both the biotechnology and agricultural industries.”

Myers credits the mentors and supervisors who assisted him throughout the various stages of his career, and enjoys pushing it forward by mentoring the many illustrious young scholars who work with him at the Danforth Center.

“I can now see where people have moved after working in my lab, to various positions in academia, government and industry,” Myers said. “It’s so rewarding to see the effects it’s having, and to think that I may have contributed in small ways at an important point in their career is a great honor and privilege.”

UM President Mun Choi said Myers’ election to NAS membership reflects the professor’s deep commitment to achieving excellence in plant science research and MU’s strong reputation as a research university.

“As a leading land grant institution and Al Ain University, we provide our faculty with the latest tools and investments so that they can compete at the national level,” Choi said. “Our partnership with the Danforth Center allows plant science research to expand through rich collaboration, and we look forward to Professor Myers’ continued success as he and his colleagues aim to solve some of the biggest challenges in plant science.”

Founded by a charter to Congress signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the NAS is an active working academy whose members advise the nation on problems where scientific insights are crucial.

Myers and his team study small RNA – a nucleic acid found in all living cells that has structural similarities to DNA – in plants to help maximize crop yields, which could have huge implications for tackling food insecurity worldwide. around the world while helping the environment.

“Our lab studies RNA, especially those involved in pollen production, which play a major role in the production of hybrid crops,” Myers said. “Hybrid crops have huge yield advantages; they can produce up to 50% more crops for a given area. So, for the same land and chemical inputs, you can produce more crops, which is a huge benefit to the environment, given the growing concerns about environmental degradation and sustainability. “.

While he was an undergraduate researcher at the University of Chicago, Myers studied species of wildflowers. He later worked with lettuce, a billion dollar crop in California, during his graduate studies at the University of California, Davis. As a postdoctoral student at UC Davis, he began research in the molecular biology of maize, a crop whose lab at the Danforth Plant Science Center continues to study today.

“When I was a postdoc, I was working for a company whose goals were more industrial than academic,” Myers said. “Working on corn and lettuce really gave me an appreciation for the impact of molecular biology on crop yields, and it inspired the work I do today.”

Myers first started his own lab in 2002 at the University of Delaware, where he began studying Arabidopsis, a plant species known for its usefulness in genetic experiments as a model organism, before moving on to studying rice, soybeans and corn.

“The technology and molecular tools we can use to answer our scientific questions have evolved incredibly well over the past 20 years,” Myers said. This includes the ability to rapidly sequence the genome of a particular crop of interest, the ability to alter genes in various ways and to question the outcome of this in terms of how the plant grows. Microscopy and imaging allow us to go below the cell level to look at single molecules. So, we can ask where one important RNA is located, in which cell it is, in what part of the cell, how many copies of that RNA are in that cell and how does one cell type compare to another cell that writes?”

Myers moved to St. Louis County in 2016 as part of a joint initiative between the Danforth Plant Science Center and MU to raise the bar for plant science research in the Midwest. Since then, the partnership has produced a growing array of innovations in plant genetics and biotechnology.

“For global challenges, there is climate change, pollution, urban expansion, population increase, and demands on limited resources, which are putting pressure on our production systems and on the environment,” Myers said. “Plants are used for food, fuel and fibre, and they are the key to a sustainable future, so we must make sure that we are good stewards of our precious resources to help farmers, the environment and the betterment of the human condition.”

Now with a family of his own, Myers still tends to his personal garden where he grows cherry tomatoes.

“The joy of science is the pursuit of that curiosity and the ability to feel and see the product of your work,” Myers said. “The rate of scientific progress is constantly increasing, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”

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