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Getting to the roots of climate solutions

Alan Flurry

As responses to climate change move toward adaptive solutions, plant genetics research faculty at the University of Georgia are seeking plant-based solutions.

Some of these colleagues – from across campus, within and beyond the Franklin College – conduct studies at the cellular level, while others investigate plants as whole organisms. Still others are exploring how epigenetics shape entire ecosystems. And while a number of UGA geneticists prioritize fundamental discovery, others are partnering with breeders or with industry to bring new crops and plant-based products to market:

“We’re spread out all over campus,” said Bob Schmitz, UGA Foundation Professor of Plant Sciences and the Lars G. Ljungdahl Distinguished Investigator of Genetics. “But we all speak the same language.

“We’re all looking for solutions.”

Schmitz likes to tell people that he’ll work on any plant that has DNA—which is all of them, of course. “Our questions are broader than any particular plant,” he said.

A member of the Department of Genetics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, Schmitz studies the mechanisms of epigenetic inheritance in plants, or how a plant’s environment influences the way its genes operate. “The genome is the same in all cells, but the way that genome is interpreted can change depending on the external environment, such as factors like an infection,” he said. “We try to understand how these events lead to changes in gene regulation both within and between plant species.”


Schmitz cites UGA’s legendary strength in plant genomics as a draw for researchers. “One reason I came to UGA is because they have such strength in assembling plant genomes for numerous and diverse crops,” he said. “The peanut genome came out of UGA. So did cotton, sorghum, poplar, maize, and many more—these are all major achievements. These efforts make it easy for labs like mine to work across diverse plant species and disciplines.”

Passing along fundamental genetic discoveries to research partners along the basic-to-applied continuum is something UGA does well, says John Burke, distinguished research professor and head of the Department of Plant Biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. He notes that the broad intersectionality of plant research has become a signature strength of the university.

“There are intentional mechanisms in place to help bridge gaps between units,” Burke said. Programs like the Plant Center and the Institute for Integrative Precision Agriculture break down barriers that might otherwise separate researchers. “We have ways to work together here. That’s critically important.”

Image: UGA Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker


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