National Science Foundation Invests in Collaborative Research to Improve Key Crops’ Resilience to Higher Temperatures

Research addresses concerns about reduced harvests of corn and other cereal grasses

St. Louis, MO (August 30, 2018) – The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center announced a four-year, $3.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Plant Genome Research Program, titled, The Role of Meiotic-Stage Non-Coding RNA in the Modulation of Anther & Pollen Development in Grasses.

The research led by Blake Meyers, Ph.D., principal investigator and member, Danforth Center and Professor, Division of Plant Sciences, at the University of Missouri, will focus on the understanding of small RNA pathways involved in anther development and crop development when plants are challenged by adverse environmental conditions. The collaborative effort brings together expertise in plant genomics and targeted mutagenesis, cutting-edge imaging techniques, and bioinformatics, with a focus on developmental biology to meet the demands of producing more nutritious food, in climates with higher temperatures.

Meyers and his collaborators at Stanford University and the University of Delaware will investigate the lifecycle and functions of a class of RNAs that support anther development in grass flowers. Anthers are critical in the reproduction of flowering plants, because they are the site of pollen development and contain the sperm cells necessary for reproduction. Prior research has demonstrated that anther development will often stall or fail under high temperatures, leaving the plants sterile or with reduced fertility, thus decreasing the harvest.

Anthers are particularly important to the production of hybrid corn seed. Corn is one of the most important crops in global agriculture, in part because of the widespread use of hybrid seeds that have high yields. Knowledge gained from this research can also be extended to wheat and barley, two important cereal grains.

“A more detailed understanding of the molecular basis of pollen development and male fertility enables improvements in seed production, including hybrid seeds; in the grasses, hybrid corn and rice have significantly boosted world food production. Outcomes could include new genetic pathways for more precise control of male fertility and plants with fertility that is more resilient to distressed environments,” said Meyers.

Prior work demonstrated that these small RNAs are required for robust male fertility under even slightly stressful temperature perturbations: in the absence of the RNAs and under normal field conditions, development fails, yielding male sterility and thus linking environmental conditions to the role of these small RNAs. The project will focus on maize anthers because of the ease of staging and dissection, the numerous developmental mutants with cloned genes, and the importance of understanding male fertility to the production of hybrid corn seed.

“Anthers on corn have this beautiful organization of tissue layers that develops as different small RNAs are expressed at various times during the anther’s development. Imaging can help visualize and quantify these small RNAs in relation to other things happening within the cell, and inform understanding of how these small RNAs regulate pollen development,” said Jeffrey Caplan, University of Delaware associate professor of plant and soil sciences and director of the bioimaging center at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute.

The research project will also include training of students in plant and computational biology via continued integration with long-running and successful undergraduate and high school internship programs.


Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Research, education and outreach aim to have impact at the nexus of food security and the environment and position the St. Louis region as a world center for plant science. The Center’s work is funded through competitive grants from many sources, including the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Follow us on Twitter at @DanforthCenter.

The University of Delaware (UD), founded in 1743, is the eighth oldest university in the country. UD’s storied tradition of academic excellence continues today in both the classroom and laboratory, with consistent ranking among the top 30 public universities. Beyond its Georgian-inspired main campus in Newark, Delaware, UD has locations across the state—in Wilmington, Dover, Georgetown and Lewes.

UD is a state-assisted, privately governed institution and one of a select group of institutions in the nation to hold the triple Land-Grant, Sea-Grant and Space-Grant designation. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classifies UD as a doctoral university with highest research activity—a designation accorded less than 3 percent of U.S. colleges and universities. UD also has received the Carnegie Foundation’s Community Engagement classification for its deep engagement with local, regional, national and global communities.

The University’s student body encompasses about 19,000 undergraduates, more than 4,000 graduate students and more than 800 students in professional and continuing studies from across the country and around the globe. More than 300 degree programs are offered through its seven colleges, spanning the associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. UD’s distinguished faculty includes internationally known authors, scientists and artists, Guggenheim and Fulbright fellows and members of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.