Yale’s Nelson gets $8.4 million grant to study photosynthesis

Timothy Nelson, professor of molecular, cellular & developmental biology, has been awarded an $8.4 million grant by the Plant Genome Research Program of the National Science Foundation to investigate the molecular basis of C4 type photosynthesis — a type of photosynthesis that supercharges carbon dioxide into photosynthetic cells of leaves, dramatically increasing their productivity.

Timothy Nelson

Nelson will lead a team of researchers from Yale, Cornell, Boyce Thompson Institute, Danforth Center, and Iowa State to study the development of the leaves of maize, which uses C4 type photosynthesis, and compare it with the development of the leaves of rice, which does not. Using a comprehensive approach, the team will inventory and model RNA patterns, proteins, metabolites, activities, and anatomical features at each developmental stage, followed by experimental testing of C4-specific features.

“Leaves organize the anatomy and biochemistry for photosynthesis step by step, starting early in development, so we need information about each stage,” Nelson said.

The C4 pattern of traits, which enables plants to thrive in environments with limited resources, has evolved independently at least 50 times. Nelson and his team will attempt to determine whether the more efficient C4 form of photosynthesis can be produced in additional crops by redirecting the genes and biochemical pathways they already have. Beyond this better understanding of C4 photosynthesis, the methods and resources developed by Nelson’s team can be applied to other studies of plant development, biochemistry, physiology, and productivity.

The award, a renewal of a $4 million grant given to Nelson and his team four years ago, was announced Feb. 15.

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Bill Hathaway: william.hathaway@yale.edu, 203-432-1322