Researchers at the University of Delaware will lead a project funded with $3.9 million from the National Science Foundation to study how genes in one type of corn may influence the plant's resistance to diseases, and compare the genomes of many types of corn to better understand how that resistance works.

The UD team will work with partners at Iowa State University, Cornell University, North Carolina State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

The project will include multidisciplinary researchers with backgrounds in genetics, bioimaging, pathology, and computer science who aim to use their genetic findings to improve disease resistance in corn crops, and perhaps other crop plants.

The UD team will use bioimaging tools to study natural genetic variation in disease resistance on samples that were infected with disease in experiments conducted by partners at Cornell and NCSU. At the BioImaging Center of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute, UD investigators will analyze hundreds of the samples through 3-D imaging, and then will use computational tools to create large format images that they can study to determine which cells a pathogen has infected and how a specific gene or genes cause resistance.

"We're not just taking a picture of the surface, we're actually taking pictures as though we are peeling layers off the tissue one at a time," a technique that enables the partners to see plant and pathogen interactions up close, UD Assistant Professor Randal Wisser, principal investigator on the project, said in a statement.

"Essentially, what we've been able to achieve is the development of an imaging and analysis platform that allows us to quantitatively examine the effects of different genes at the tissue and cellular level. It's eye-opening, and we've only begun scratching the surface."

So far, the project has focused on finding out which genes are important for disease resistance, but there are still many more genes that have not yet been identified and it is still unclear how they interact or lead to resistance, Wisser said.

Wisser and the research partners on the project also plan to sequence and compare the genomes of more than 250 types of maize to try to determine which genes control characteristics like disease resistance. The partners also will validate the effects of these genes by searching for extreme mutations and then by deregulating the gene to disrupt how they impact resistance.

By examining the results from all of these projects the partners hope to gain a picture of which genes are involved in resistance, how they function and operate internally, how they connect to create networks, and how those processes lead to either disease resistance or susceptibility.