Laura Gunn, assistant professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, Plant Biology Section, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Plant biologist Laura Gunn receives DOE Early Career Award

Laura Gunn, assistant professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, Plant Biology Section, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has been awarded a Department of Energy (DOE) Early Career Award to explore the ancient enzyme Rubisco, a key player in photosynthesis.

Gunn is one of 93 scientists from across the nation chosen for this year’s awards, announced Aug. 4. She will receive $875,000 over five years.

Rubisco has been performing the critical first step of photosynthesis for 2.4 billion years; it fixes carbon in plants, algae, bacteria and many other living organisms. Gunn will explore whether ancient Rubisco – the kind that thrived during the Miocene Epoch, when Earth was warmer and carbon dioxide concentrations were higher – could be resurrected and integrated into modern plants, to help them cope with the similar conditions being caused by climate change.

“Global temperatures are projected to increase by 5-6 degrees by 2100, and 5 or 6 degrees is huge,” Gunn said. “Temperature increases will have a massive impact on the productivity of plants. All of plants’ regulatory processes, such as when they start flowering, are triggered by environmental temperatures, but also Rubisco becomes less efficient as temperatures increase. Fundamentally, my goal is to prepare plants to cope and to be more efficient within our changing climate.”

A previous study out of the lab of Maureen Hanson, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Plant Molecular Biology, reconstructed the DNA sequences of Rubisco that existed approximately 25 million years ago, when Earth’s climate was hotter and more variable, and the atmosphere contained higher CO2 concentrations than present-day and pre-industrial atmospheric conditions. Some of these reconstructed Rubiscos show better efficiency and tolerance to high temperatures than modern-day Rubisco.

Gunn seeks to understand the basic biology of these ancient Rubiscos, find top performers, then create new Rubisco variants that could be grafted into modern plants. Gunn and her colleagues have already successfully transferred Rubisco from a highly efficient, modern red algae into tobacco, something scientists have been trying to do for at least 20 years.

Funding for this award comes from the DOE Office of Science’s Early Career Research Program, “which bolsters the nation’s scientific workforce by supporting exceptional researchers at the outset of their careers, when many scientists do their most formative work,” according to the DOE.

Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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