Brachypodium plants growing hydroponically under different conditions for 24 days.

Courtesy of Iryna Dovirak '20

Brachypodium plants growing hydroponically under different conditions for 24 days.

January 21, 2019

Student Spotlight on Iryna Dovirak ’20: Developing Wheat Resistant to the Effects of Climate Change

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While it is easy to take a breakfast scone, PB&J sandwich, or Doritos study snack for granted, many countries lack the specific soil conditions for the wheat needed in these products. Iryna Dovirak ’20 has taken the phrase “let’s get this bread” to a whole new level, by pursuing a solution for diminished wheat yields in Ukraine, a major exporter of of the grain.

Developing breeding strategies to improve mineral extraction and nutrient transport within wheat crops under Prof. Olena Vatamaniuk, soil and crop sciences, Dovirak hopes to create a resilient grain that can flourish despite limiting soil conditions.

“While other breeding programs have focused on increasing grain yield, they fail to maintain the substantive nutrient concentrations essential in wheat products,” Dovirak said. She and other members of the Vatamaniuk lab instead focus on preserving the nutrient density of wheat, devising ways to both increase yield and maintain nutrient quality.

In order for wheat to successfully grow and retain micronutrient density, it must have access to various minerals in the soil, namely zinc, iron and copper.

“Unfortunately, 70 percent of Ukraine’s farmable land is composed of alkaline soil which lacks these nutrients, especially copper,” Dovirak said.

Because of the nutrient deficiency and the unique sensitivity of wheat to the bioavailability of copper, Dovirak decided to focus on better understanding and further improving the process of copper absorption, regulation and transport in grains.

“We knew that copper regulates the growth and development of wheat, but we weren’t sure of the exact pathways,” she said. In light of this, Dovirak and others in the Vatamaniuk lab decided to take a closer look at a specific species of wheat proxy called Brachypodium.

After conducting research in a greenhouse, Dovirak and lab colleagues discovered two important transcription factors, spl7 and citfl1. These molecules turn on specific genes that aid in copper delivery and help maintain homeostasis, or the maintenance of optimal living conditions within the organism. The specific transcription process positively regulates the growth, crop yield and fertility of Brachypodium wheat. According to Dovirak, the manipulation of the spl7 or citfl1 pathway in various wheat species can lead to genetically modified grain strains that are resilient to copper deficient soils.

The next steps of the project involve Dovirak using cutting edge gene modification techniques, such as  CRISPR. This tool analyzes desired genes by using the Cas9 enzyme group which cleave strands of CRISPR DNA sequences commonly found in prokaryotic organisms.

Dovirak will use these methods to see if the desired spl7 and citfl1 genes from Brachypodium can be selectively inserted into other, less resilient wheat species like Arabidopsis, which is more closely related to commercial wheat grain.

By isolating Brachypodium ctfl1 cDNA and inserting it into another wheat species, Arabidopsis, which lacks the ctfll1 gene homologs, Dovirak hopes to produce a viable Arabidopsis mutant. This would prove that transgenic modification of transcription factors is a feasible venture. She will use wheat strains acquired from collaboration with a plant genetics lab in Ukraine. With hydroponic techniques to tightly control soil composition, Dovirak will be able to mimic copper-deficient soil conditions in the fields and greenhouses here at Cornell.

Overall, Dovirak believes that this research will be crucial in improving food availability in the face of climate change.

“The growth of these plants is dependent on the composition of the soil which will be affected by climate change and if we fail to solve crop growing issues now, nutrient intake could become a pervasive problem even in the United States,” she said.