New research to explore the mysteries of mitochondria, giving insight into evolution, food security and climate change

Newswise – AMHERST, Massachusetts. The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently announced that it will support the efforts of a collaborative group of researchers led by Elizabeth FurlingDistinguished Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who plan to spend the next four years investigating the role mitochondria play in plant productivity. This research has immediate implications for ensuring that agriculture can meet the challenge of global warming.

“One of the things that fascinates me,” Ferling says, “is to see, on a cellular level, the amount of life itself, but also to see the small differences that give life on Earth such diversity.” One such similarity is that the cells of every organism more complex than bacteria contain mitochondria – the motor of the cell. Mitochondria are tiny rod-shaped motors that convert oxygen and nutrients into a chemical known as ATP, which powers the cell.

However, while both plant and animal cells contain mitochondria that supply cells with energy, mitochondria in plants function differently than mitochondria in animals. That’s because plants also contain chloroplasts, which, Ferling says, “are the cell’s food factories” and are responsible for photosynthesis: turning light into food the cell can use. “Mitochondria in plants have to work with chloroplasts — although mitochondria in both plant and animal cells do many of the same things,” Vierling says. “How do mitochondria know what type of cell they are in? How do they know how to behave? It is an evolutionary puzzle.”

To answer these unknowns, Ferling will join colleagues at Dartmouth, San Diego State University and the University of Georgia to study the role that a protein known as ATAD3 plays in mitochondria.

ATAD3 is found in all higher life forms, from fruit flies to tomatoes to humans, and when defective, it can cause a variety of serious human health problems. “Neither humans nor plants can live without ATAD3, and we think it’s one of the components that tell mitochondria whether they are inside a plant or animal cell,” says Vierling.

If it is really true that ATAD3 can tell mitochondria when to behave like an animal and when to behave like a plant, then this is actually one of the small differences responsible for the diversity of life.

In order to determine the role of ATAD3, the project will draw on the evolutionary bioinformatics expertise of Elizabeth Waters At San Diego State University, conducting experiments on two “lab rats”, a flowering plant Arabidopsis thalianawhich will be the focus of the Vierling Lab’s research and moss, Open Physcomitriumin a lab Magdalena Bizanella in Dartmouth. Group synergy is a major force that led to the successful NSF application.

But there is more. “It turns out that slight disturbances in ATAD3 somehow make plants more heat-tolerant,” Ferling says. “We don’t understand why you could disable ATAD3 function and get a better response to higher temperatures, but that’s part of what we want to discover, and it could be an important trait for adapting to a warming world.”

A key component of the project involves the development and implementation of a model program to enhance the diversity of the STEM workforce to train the next generation of biotechnology researchers. Each of the project’s principal investigators will recruit students to help conduct the research – the Vierling Lab will accommodate 5 to 6 undergraduate students over the next four years. San Diego State Waters, along with Paula Lemons, a STEM education expert at the University of Georgia, will lead a program called “BioTech at San Diego State University.” All four senior researchers will work with more than 40 undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds to train them in scientific research methods, connect them to summer internships at biotech companies and engage them in a two-year learning community for professional development. Furthermore, the program can serve as a model for other organizations to enhance the diversity of their growing biotechnology workforce.