Understanding how and why plants make the organosulfur molecule DMSP

Understanding how and why plants make the organosulfur molecule DMSP

Understanding how and why plants make the organosulfur molecule DMSP 

Lead supervisors: Dr Ben Miller (PI) and Dr Rocky Payet (PDRA) 

Location: School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia

Duration: 8 weeks

Suitable undergraduate degrees: Biological Sciences, Environmental Sciences 

Project background

Dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) is an abundant and important compound in biology and the environment, where it has key roles in nutrient cycling, stress tolerance and as the major precursor to the climate-active gas dimethyl sulfide (DMS). Some plants produce DMSP, e.g. Spartina, which is likely the major DMSP producer in saltmarsh environments – global hotspots for DMSP/DMS production. Indeed, DMSP production is thought to allow plants to tolerate conditions associated with growing at the coast. Currently, few plants are known to make DMSP and the precise role of DMSP is unknown – a consequence of no plant DMSP synthesis genes having hitherto been described. Building on our identification and ratification of plant DMSP synthesis genes, the student will study how and why plants produce DMSP. Our work will have important consequences for better evaluating plant contributions to global DMSP and DMS production in the natural environment.

Aims and objectives:

1) Grow plants under controlled environments and assess DMSP production

To test our hypothesis that plants produce DMSP to tolerate different environmental stresses, the student will grow model species under controlled lab conditions in the presence/absence of different stresses and assess plant growth (e.g. fresh weight, dry weight, root length) and measure DMSP levels using established gas chromatography techniques. The student will initially focus on growing plants in the presence/absence of sea salts, sodium chloride and osmotic stress as we believe these are the most important stresses governing DMSP production in plants growing at the coast. This list of stresses could be expanded further during the project, depending on progress, and based on the interests and ability of the student.

2) Assess DMSP production in Spartina plants grown in the natural environment

The student will have opportunities to sample Spartina plants from the North Norfolk coast, where we sample regularly as part of NERC project NE/V000756/1, and assay DMSP production in material from different sites. This work will help determine seasonal, geographic and environmental factors that affect DMSP production in plants growing in the natural environment.

3) Measure expression of candidate DMSP synthesis genes using qRT-PCR

The student will extract RNA from plant samples harvested in Objectives 1 and 2, create cDNA and measure expression of selected candidate DMSP synthesis genes using qRT-PCR. This work will link expression of DMSP synthesis genes to environmental factors that govern DMSP production in plants. Although technically more challenging for an undergraduate, this molecular work will provide the student with excellent molecular experience to complement the plant physiology, DMSP measurements and environmental sampling work in earlier objectives.

Overall, this project will allow the student to gain first-hand experience of how scientific research operates, providing them with excellent opportunities for training in diverse techniques firmly within the NERC remit. The student will learn how to design and plan their own experiments. They will also learn the importance of appropriate experimental controls and how to interpret data to inform future work. The student will join a supportive lab environment and will importantly learn to develop their skills to work independently.

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