Missouri scientist to improve mineral uptake of plants
Forget fruits and vegetables, seeds provide a critical part of the average person’s diet. From beans to cereal grains, understanding how genes and soil types impact nutrition could one day help produce more nutritious food.
One University of Missouri researcher wants to know which genes control the elements in these nutrient-rich packages.
“Iron and zinc deficiencies are considered two major nutritional disorders in the world, so there’s a lot of interest in developing plants with enhanced amounts of these micronutrients,” said David Mendoza-Cozatl, a Bond Life Sciences Center and College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources plant scientist. “The question for labs like mine is how can you convince a plant to accumulate more of these metals even though high concentrations can be toxic to plants?”
In a five-year collaboration with researchers at the University of Nevada and UC San Diego, the group measured the amounts of 14 elements in both plant seeds and leaves of mutant Arabidopsis thaliana plants planted in different soil types (salty, alkali, heavy metal and normal).
Disable a Gene, Change Mineral Uptake
These mutants were special. Each plant had a different gene disabled, allowing researchers to tell if the disabled gene affected uptake of minerals into the seeds or leaves.
The teams found that 11 percent of genes influence proteins relevant to the nutritional content in seeds. Soil types also played a role in the significance each gene’s impact.
The approach could be likened to understanding how a car works.
“What we are doing here is we have a car with different parts missing, and the question we are asking is what happens to the car without each of these parts,” Mendoza-Cozatl said. “In plants we ask how more or less elements or nutrients can accumulate without each of these parts, these genes. That’s how we are trying to assign the function of a gene to nutrient homeostasis.”
Mendoza-Cozatl’s work with the group focused on soil laced with non-essential heavy metals (e.g. cadmium and arsenic). They grew mutant plants from seeds and compared nutrient content of those plants’ leaves and seeds to a baseline. To do this, researchers “digested” leaves and seeds, separately, then quantified the amounts of elements.
“We turn everything into basic elements by putting the seeds or leaves in a tube, adding nitric acid and boiling them,” Mendoza Cozatl said. “We found that the mineral makeup of the seed and leaves can be different.”