New Study by Lehman Professor Could Lead to Better Crop Yield

December 3, 2014 12:34 pm Biological Sciences Dept, School of Natural and Social Sciences

Professor Zhi-Liang Zheng (at right) with two of his students in his lab.

A breakthrough study in plant sciences and biology led by Professor Zhi-Liang Zheng, (Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences) has potential long-term ramifications for improving crop yield and food quality.

Prof. Zheng has identified a unique function for a sulfur nutrient transporter called SULTR1;2 and for the  first time provides genetic and physiological evidence  that SULTR1;2 can  act as both a sulfur nutrient sensor/ receptor and a transporter.

“This is the most exciting thing to come out of my lab, definitely the highlight,” says Prof. Zheng, who has been at Lehman for eleven years. “A dual function nutrient transporter/sensor offers the huge advantage of using the same molecule to detect the nutrient status and to transport the nutrient into the cell. Without this, the cell needs two different proteins, one receptor/sensor to detect how much nutrient there is—and then ‘tell’ a transporter to specifically move the nutrient into the cell. ‘Telling’ may take longer and so is less efficient in dealing with the dynamic nutrient environment.

Sulfur is an essential nutrient for all living organisms and sulfur nutrition serves many key functions in plants, including crop growth, enhancing the baking quality of wheat and improving the nutritional value of foods.

While plants are able to metabolize sulfur, it is unknown precisely how they are able to detect their sulfur nutrient status meaning how much sulfur is in the cell. Prof. Zheng’s sulfur sensor study is an important step in unraveling this sensing mechanism and will ultimately lead to the improvement of sulfur nutrient use in crops.

Prof. Zheng’s work has been supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) collaborative research grant with a group led by Dr. Thomas Leustek, at the Rutgers University Department of Plant Biology & Pathology.  This ground-breaking work was originally published in The Plant Journal, one of the most well-respected  plant science journals in the world.

Other researchers at Lehman who contributed to this work include Dr. Hanbin Dan, a former Lehman doctoral student of  the Plant Sciences PhD program who successfully isolated the mutants—and cloned the SULTR1;2 gene. It also includes Dr. Bo Zhang,  a highly dedicated and creative postdoctoral associate since 2011 who studied gene expression to show the defects of the SULTR1;2 mutants in sensing the sulfur nutrient level.

The NSF-REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) has provided funding for Chinwe Okoye-Oyibo, a highly motivated Lehman senior and biology major to participate in the project since 2013. Prof Zheng is looking for other highly motivated science students to assist in continuing his research with the goal of unraveling the mode of action for the sulfur sensor.