Since scientists at Redstone Arsenal launched the U.S. into the space race in the late 1950s, Huntsville has been known as a center of groundbreaking scientific discovery.
Researchers at Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology are continuing the trend of exploring uncharted territory, but their goal is more down to earth. Instead of reaching new atmospheric heights, HudsonAlpha faculty investigators Jeremy Schmutz and Jane Grimwood, Ph.D.s, are tasked with decoding plant DNA. They break plants apart to a genetic level and put the pieces back together to build a “reference genome.”
“It’s a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, except there are no corner or edge pieces and no picture to look at to help put it together,” Grimwood said. “We’re building the picture. That’s what a reference genome is.”
Their data will help other researchers and breeders discover the DNA building blocks that give certain plants desirable traits, such as disease resistance or drought tolerance.
“A lot of U.S. crops have a long history of being selectively bred to improve them compared to the same crop that was first domesticated and grown on the farm,” Schmutz said. “That was all done by a breeder walking through the field and selecting which plants to cross.”
With plant DNA testing, Schmutz said breeders can remove the guesswork involved in their jobs and get a better seed to market in fewer growing seasons.
“Historically, a lot of breeding has been done somewhat blindly, but as we understand more about plants and their DNA, it’s much easier to make intelligent decisions about how to make plants better,” he said.
Grimwood said their discoveries could soon help Alabama farmers by improving yields for annual crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat and sorghum, and perennial crops including fruit, nut and pine trees. HudsonAlpha research is released publicly once completed and may be used by researchers or public breeders.
“We’re at the forefront of plant genomics, and we’re really pushing where we can go right now with the available technology,” she said. “As we move forward and new technology becomes available, there’s so much more that’s going to be learned about different plants and how they interact with their environments.”
Severe drought in California last year, and the overwhelming task of feeding more than 9 billion people by 2050, reinforces the importance of finding drought-tolerant, high-producing plants.
“Everything we do here is focused around applying genomics to solve real-world problems and understand what’s going on,” Schmutz said. “Water issues are really going to drive a lot of change in agriculture.”
While Schmutz and Grimwood study plants at the non-profit research institute, another division of HudsonAlpha focuses on human DNA research and discovering links to human diseases. The campus includes an educational facility, where more than 700,000 students and teachers learned about genomic science last year.
HudsonAlpha employs almost 200 people and is a non-profit funded through state and federal research grants. Private donors may also support the institute with donations to the HudsonAlpha Foundation.
For more information, visit HudsonAlpha.org or search for HudsonAlpha on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.
• Founded in 2008
• 152 acre campus in Huntsville's Cummings Research Park is the nation’s second-largest research park
• Includes three areas: non-profit research institute, education and biotechnology companies