COLLEGE STATION — Dr. Xiuren Zhang, a biochemist and geneticist with Texas A&M AgriLife Research in College Station, has been awarded almost $1.3 million from the National Science Foundation to further his studies on RNA silencing and plant stem cells, which ultimately could help breed more productive plants.
The award is through the science foundation’s CAREER program, which is given in “support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.”
Zhang is also an assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics with a lab at Texas A&M University’s Institute for Plant Genomics and Biotechnology.
His research was recently featured in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology in an article that detailed his team’s discovery of the bidirectional processing of microRNAs in plants. These small RNAs turn off gene expression but they are processed from a specific group of progenitor RNAs, also known as primary RNAs that contain loop structures.
Zhang’s team studied the common lab plant, Arabidopsis, and rice and found that primary microRNA can be processed in either direction. But the processing from only one direction leads to forming a mature microRNA species, while going the other direction causes the process to abort and degrade.
Zhang’s work was related to Argonaute genes, so named because their mutants resemble the shellfish known as an argonaut. Argonaute proteins are guided by small RNAs to shut-down gene activities.
Zhang’s lab discovered that Arabidopsis Argonaute10, different from other Argonaute proteins, specifically locks a group of tiny microRNAs, and prevents their “turn-off” activities to promote plant stem cell development.
The CAREER award, which will extend over five years, is expected to help Zhang and his team continue their work on controlling stem cells of plants, which ultimately could lead to the ability to regulate the production of leaves, seeds and fruit.
Zhang’s lab will continue to focus on the Argonaute 10. The CAREER grant will be used to include investigations of various biochemical interactions involving AGO10 and its new partners. It will also include an educational component aimed at creating and sustaining interest in undergraduate students — especially minorities and women — in order to encourage them to continue in research at the graduate level, Zhang said.