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Nathan Baker

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Playing ketchup: Local researcher uses grant to study plant, crop sustainability

August 17th, 2014 9:30 pm by Nathan Baker

Playing ketchup: Local researcher uses grant to study plant, crop sustainability

A local researcher hopes her studies of a neuron-stimulating molecule in animals may lead to heartier, more-productive crops able to withstand harsh conditions.

East Tennessee State University’s Aruna Kilaru received a $9,800 grant from the college’s Research Development Committee to explore the role of N-acylethanolamines in plants, specifically tomatoes.

In animals, the lipid molecules are produced in response to pain or other stress stimulants, and Kilaru hopes to determine whether they serve a similar purpose in plants and if they can be manipulated or transferred to other plants to help them grow and thrive during droughts or extreme temperature fluctuations.

“We don’t need a huge garden, all we really need are seeds to look at them on a molecular level,” she said. “If we are able to identify that these do play a role in stress, we can move forward to manipulating genes, trying to make plants more tolerant when they’re expose to stress conditions.”

According to Kilaru, uncontrollable weather conditions lead to the loss of half the potential yield of most major crops worldwide.

If researchers were able to isolate the genes that help certain plants cope with extreme salinity, lack of water or temperature swings, they could vastly improve the amount of food produced per crop and could increase the amount of arable land available.

While some may object to biologists tinkering with edible plants’ genes in lab settings, Kilaru said furthering scientific knowledge of the inner processes of plants is simply speeding up the process of natural selection, and is likely the only way to produce enough food to meet the needs of the world’s ever-expanding population.

“Everything you buy from the grocery store has been genetically modified,” she said. “The tomatoes we buy now have been modified to have a thicker skin, so they have a longer shelf life.

“We have been modifying plants for hundreds of years by selecting certain qualities over others and growing more crops from their seeds. It’s a natural process, but with technology, we can do it in two years instead of 10.”

With the initial grant from ETSU, Kilaru hopes to get the research program of the ground and show enough progress to catch the eye of other funding sources.

With diligence and the proper funding, she hopes to have her results on the lipid study in about 10 years.

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