Mary Gehring

Mary Gehring

Awarded in 2019

Seeds of Survival

Adopting orphan crops to adapt to climate change

Diversifying food sources through molecular research

Climate change and its many related effects—including drought, floods, and storms—take a toll on agricultural production. We need to diversify our food supply to ensure that we can continue to feed the world. This has prompted Dr. Mary Gehring to start to focus some of her research efforts on orphan crops. “An orphan crop is one that is grown chiefly by subsistence farmers on marginal lands in various parts of the world,” she says. “Although not staple crops like corn or rice, orphan crops are often high in nutrients and resistant to stresses like drought and pathogens. This makes them appealing as a potential food source on a larger scale, but they haven’t been studied much molecularly.”

The specific crops that Dr. Gehring plans to study are Camelina sativa (C. sativa), also known as false flax, and Cajanus cajan, better known as pigeon pea. Work in her lab and elsewhere over the last several years has shown that epigenetics—heritable changes in gene expression not encoded in an organism’s DNA sequence—controls key aspects of seed development. Using DNA demethylation, Dr. Gehring hopes to be able to optimize certain seed traits (such as size, or oil or protein content) that could make orphan crops a viable global food source.

Dr. Gehring’s project encompasses a number of complex steps: collecting a wide range of seeds from different species and growing them under similar conditions; profiling gene expression to understand the diversity of phenotypes already present in the population; performing genomic editing to produce new hybrids with traits of interest; and stabilizing those traits by making plants that create seeds without having to undergo the genetic disruption of meiosis and fertilization.

Dr. Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel Prize in 1970 for his work in addressing world food insecurity, inspired me to go to graduate school, and now is the time for me to apply my skills to help avert the next food crisis.”


Breaking new ground

Orphan crops by definition receive little research funding. In fact, plant research in general is woefully underfunded and federal investment remains stagnate or declining. As a result, there isn’t a lot of prior research in this specific area to build on. “A key challenge is applying molecular biology to understudied species,” Dr. Gehring says. “And given the life cycle of plants, it’s impossible to predict how long it may take to see results. But the work must begin because we are already behind. We don’t have time to wait.”


Planting hope in fragile soil

Seeds are the source of almost 70 percent of the calories consumed by humans worldwide and are a critical source of oil for cooking, biofuels, and industrial applications. Proving the viability of orphan crops could have many ripples of positive impact. Subsistence farmers will earn more money from their harvests. With land use issues affecting food production worldwide, the ability to grow marketable crops on marginal lands will benefit the entire farming industry. And a healthy food supply that is resistant to the deleterious effects of climate change will help to feed the growing world population for many years to come.


The power of pea sequencing

Despite facing challenges due to the pandemic, Gehring’s research on the underutilized crop pigeon pea has progressed steadily, achieving notable milestones along the way. Despite initially lacking experience with the species, Gehring’s team successfully cultivated pigeon peas in the lab, overcoming obstacles related to growth and flowering. Recognizing the importance of a more comprehensive genome, they initiated sequencing efforts, which are now nearing completion.

Additionally, Gehring’s research has led to the development of new methods for inducing genetic variation in pigeon peas and other underutilized crops, addressing their genetic limitations while tapping into their inherent salt stress resilience. Through screening mutagenized pigeon pea populations, Gehring intends to identify plants with improved seed yield and enhanced stress resistance.

Gehring’s research has also progressed in developing bioengineering approaches to achieve clonal reproduction in plants. If successful, this will allow beneficial hybrid genotypes to be transmitted from one generation to the next, a boon for agriculture. While the research is yet to be published, Gehring anticipates sharing their findings within the next year, which she believes will solidify her lab’s position in this field. “I don’t think I would be working on legume seed biology or genome engineering if not for the initial Bose funds,” she says.