Innovative plant fertilization study awarded significant NSF grant

Tomokazu Kawashima and colleague
Tomokazu Kawashima, left, could help unlock the secrets of plant fertilization | Courtesy Matt Barton

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 5, 2023) — A pioneering University of Kentucky Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment research initiative aimed at decoding the secrets of plant fertilization has been granted a significant boost, receiving $870,396 from the National Science Foundation (NSF). This investment marks a pivotal step forward in understanding plant reproduction mechanisms, with profound implications for future agricultural innovation and food security. 

"Understanding how plants control the fertilization process at these very early steps is crucial for advancing our knowledge in plant reproduction,” said Tomokazu Kawashima, an associate professor in the UK Department of Plant and Soil Science. “It's not just about the science; it's about unlocking the potential to improve crop resilience and productivity.” 

The grant, part of a larger $1.2 million collaborative project with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), stresses the critical importance of advancing knowledge in plant biology and addressing the pressing challenges facing global agriculture. The study, led by Kawashima, investigates the complex process of double fertilization in plants — a unique reproductive strategy key to seed development and the survival of flowering plant species. 

Double fertilization involves two distinct fertilization events that occur within a single seed, forming both an embryo and a nutrient-rich tissue known as the endosperm. This dual process is essential for seed growth and development, yet its underlying mechanisms remain largely uncharted territory. 

The research project employs the flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana — a small but powerful model organism in plant genetics — to unravel the mysteries of fertilization. Despite its inconspicuous nature, Arabidopsis offers invaluable insights due to its relatively simple genome and ease of cultivation.  

The study findings are expected to have far-reaching applications, potentially revolutionizing the resilience and productivity of crucial crops such as soybeans, corn and wheat in the face of environmental challenges and climate change. 

This three-year study will combine cutting-edge molecular biology techniques with advanced computer simulations to create a comprehensive model of plant cell behavior during fertilization. In partnership with UTK’s Steven Abel, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Kawashima will use these simulations to uncover new aspects of cell dynamics. 

"This funding shows the importance of our work and the potential it has to transform agriculture as we know it," stated Kawashima. "By shedding light on the intricacies of plant fertilization, we aim to pave the way for developing crops that are more robust, yield-rich and capable of withstanding climate change’s unpredictability." 

The NSF funding also highlights the growing recognition of scientific inquiries into plant biology.  

"As we move forward, this research can revolutionize how we think about plant biology and crop production as we face increasing environmental pressures,” Kawashima said. “Understanding the early steps of plant fertilization opens new avenues for creating future sustainable and resilient food systems." 

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Science Foundation under Award Number 2334516. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. 

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