Emily Harrison

Investigating how reducing stomatal density in the C4 crop Maize influences drought tolerance and photosynthesis (iCASE)

About me

I completed my integrated Bachelors and Masters degree in Biology (MBiolSci) at the University of Sheffield in 2016. During my final year, I undertook a project researching the capacities of various wheat varieties to utilise organic sources of phosphorus, under the supervision of Dr Gareth Phoenix. This sparked my interest for research in the area of food security and crop science. Following this, in order to expand my skillset in molecular biology and genetic techniques, I worked as a research technician in the lab of Prof Julie Gray for 18 months, alongside Dr Robert Caine. Working with rice transformants with significantly reduced numbers of stomata, we investigated how stomatal density can impact on tolerance to a number of abiotic stresses. During my time as a technician, I was involved in the publication of several research papers and reviews on stomatal development and physiology (Hepworth et al. 2018, Zoulias et al. 2018, Caine et al. 2019, Mohammed et al. 2019). My time in this lab verified my interest in the improvement of crops, in particular, to withstand future climatic conditions.

My project

My PhD iCASE studentship is under the supervision of Prof Julie Gray at the University of Sheffield, and in collaboration with plant biotech company Biogemma. I am predominantly interested in stomata, tiny pores on a leaf’s surface which facilitate the simultaneous uptake of CO2 for photosynthesis and release of water through transpiration, and how these can be manipulated for crop improvement. Previous work from the Gray lab has shown that manipulating the EPIDERMAL PATTERNING FACTORS, a family of secreted peptides involved in stomatal development, can alter stomatal density, which in turn can influence photosynthetic gas exchange and drought tolerance. Working with Biogemma, my project will translate this research into the C4 crop Maize; the world’s most highly produced crop, one which is often grown in areas that will be highly susceptible to drought stress as climate change intensifies. We expect to see that a reduction in stomatal density via a CRISPR-mediated gene knockout, will lead to an improvement in water use efficiency. However, I am particularly interested in whether Maize’s C4 carbon-concentrating mechanism can mitigate any negative impact on carbon assimilation, maintaining high yields. My project also aims to further characterise our C3 stomatal density mutants in the context of photosynthesis, and to produce plants with both improved stress tolerance and photosynthetic efficiency by using a multigene stacking approach


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