Parasitic plant researcher Jim Westwood is one of eight researchers selected for funding by a new $14 million National Science Foundation grant program that helps scientists develop genomic tools to better understand the structure and function of organisms.
Westwood, a professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, studies how parasitic plants, such as Cuscuta, are able to invade their hosts and steal water and food without providing anything in return.
Westwood’s award will allow him to expand the use of Cuscuta as a research model system by developing plant transformation methods to genetically test gene function and providing techniques and tips on growing Cuscuta to other scientists. He will also develop instructional materials about the model system to be used at the high school and college levels.
“Cuscuta provides a fresh perspective for understanding plant science because its evolution to parasitism has resulted in exaggerated features that push the boundaries of plant capabilities,” writes Westwood, who is also affiliated with Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Science Institute. “For example, Cuscuta seedlings can identify host locations and grow toward them, demonstrating an ability to detect and respond to other plants in their environment.”
This summer, Roanoke Valley Governor's School for Science and Technology student Madelyn Nichols will assist Westwood with the project, along with other Virginia Tech graduate and undergraduate students. The project is funded for three years.
Known specifically as the Enabling Discovery through Genomic Tools program, the award is administered by NSF’s Biological Science Directorate, and awardees include researchers from other universities such as Oregon State University, Pennsylvania State University, and Michigan State University.
“EDGE awards can bridge significant gaps in genomic research capabilities,” said James Olds, NSF assistant director for Biological Sciences. “Every breakthrough made by one of these projects has the potential to lead to many more discoveries, as they will provide valuable new tools for entire fields of science.”
Westwood is an expert in the field of parasitic plants. In 2016, he and a team of researchers determined that parasitic plants use horizontal gene transfer, which is a non-sexual type of transfer that allows them to steal DNA from a host plant. In 2014, he discovered cross-species movement of messenger RNA, a potentially new form of plant communication between parasitic plants and their hosts.
Cuscuta, also known as dodder, is detrimental to crop growth across the world, and new control strategies are desperately needed.