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Skills Development in Synthetic Biology for Climate-Smart and Sustainable Agriculture

Key personnel:  PI; AL Khan , Co-PI; V. Balan, Y. Lin, HY Hwang, A. Flavier (Sen Per) at University of Houston along with S. Zhen at Texas A&M

The sustainability of conventional agricultural practices has become increasingly challenging due to climate change. For food security, there is a dire need to equip the younger generation with the required knowledge and skills to meet the challenges of growing more food for the increasing human population. The project team will introduce underrepresented students to career opportunities in agriculture by developing new courses in plant biotechnology and synthetic biology. Students will acquire experiential and project-based learning involving the genetic engineering of plants and microbes to improve soil health and plant productivity through independent and thesis research, industry internships, and hydroponic certification. Thus, the project will directly benefit more than undergraduate and graduate students belonging to minority backgrounds.


PlantCellTech: Advancing undergraduate research skills

Key personnel:  PI; AL Khan , Co-PI; Y. Lin, V. Balan
Project Funding: Cougar Initiative to Engage (CITE) at the University of Houston

Plants are vital natural resources for producing many biologically active metabolites and pharmaceuticals crucial in combating several human diseases. Using in-vitro plant cell culture is highly scalable and cost-effective in producing therapeutic metabolites. The production of a beneficial metabolite can be increased by implementing recombinant DNA technology tools in plant cell culture. This provides an excellent opportunity for undergraduate students to expand their plant cell technology knowledge, skills, and abilities. The proposed program is problem-focused research to help undergraduate students grow plants, extract and analyze DNA, construct vectors, conduct PCR analysis, transform Agrobacterium-mediated genes, and isolate, purify, and quantify therapeutic metabolites.


Photosynthetic Processes for Understanding Crop Plant Responses To Climatic Stresses 

Key personnel:  PI; AL Khan , Co-PI; K. Crawford, Sen Per; A. Flavier
Project Funding: USDA has funded this project

Climate change can decrease plant productivity and threaten food security. Crop plants activate biochemical, metabolite, and molecular defense pathways to withstand climatic stress. The plants must continue synthesizing the basic energy to maintain growth and stress responses. In this case, photosynthesis is the leading supplier of carbon and energy, where the gas exchange process helps to maintain leaf-level carbon dioxide (CO2) and H2O flux and stomatal conductance. Measuring essential steps of photosynthetic processes, such as pulsed amplitude modulation/chlorophyll fluorescence, provides robust assessments of plant growth and metabolism. The rate of photosynthesis is always affected by different climatic stresses such as salinity, drought, flooding, high or low temperature, and abnormal soil chemistry. These climate-change-induced stresses with different intensities and durations hinder photosynthesis and ultimately reduce plant growth and biomass production. Increasing photosynthesis-related CO2 sequestration and assimilation per unit leaf/land area could boost crop production. Thus, investigating and elucidating the impact of different stress conditions on various crops is essential to address the challenges of sustainable crop yield. Hence, this project proposes using a portable photosynthesis meter (LI-COR) that is a reliable, handy, portable, adjustable, and easy-to-use instrument to monitor and record the photosynthesis of plants exposed to variable climatic conditions. This will help to achieve two primary objectives: (i) understanding crop plant growth and impacts on photosynthesis during variable climatic stress events, (ii) exploring the role of microbial communities in plant biomass and stress tolerance, and (ii) building knowledge and skills of underrepresented undergraduate and graduate students in research projects related to Agri-Biotechnology.

Genomic, Transcriptomic and Proteomic Mechanisms involved in Resin Production from endemic Boswellia sacra Tree

Key personnel:  Abdul Latif Khan 
Project Funding: The Research Council Oman (completed)
Collaborating Institutions: University of Nizwa, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Boswellia sacra is an economically important frankincense producing endemic tree of Sultanate of Oman. During tapping/wounds to the tree for resin, the tree activates its physiological defense mechanisms by producing volatile and non-volatile chemical messengers to counteract the negative impacts of resin production. Such defense responses have been extensively studied in pine tree, however, during tapping of Boswellia species, especially B. sacra nothing is known. It is also not yet specified that whether the resin production is solely induced by wound/tapping or it is ignited by fungal pathogenesis. In this regard, the present research project has been proposed with the aim to understand the physiological, molecular and biosynthetic mechanisms involved during resin production of Boswellia sacra. The fungal pathogens and symbiotic microflora of the bark and resin will be explored to understand resin synthesis mechanism. Major resin constituents such as boswellic acid will be explored in the tissue culture originated ex-plants and bioactive fungal strains. Whole genome sequencing of the Boswellia sacra will be performed for the first time to understand and conserve the essential gene pool of the endemic tree. To reveal this, various biochemical, proteomic molecular and bioinformatical approaches will be adopted using advance instruments and in silico big data obtained through proteomics and next generation sequencing.


Producing Algal Biomass from Wastewater as Cotton Plant Fertilizer to Reduce Carbon Footprint

Key personnel:  Abdul Latif Khan (Co-PI)
Funding Agency: Department of Energy
Collaborating partners: Praire View A & M University

Increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have created unprecedented changes to the global climate causing extreme precipitation and drought. Considerable emphasis is given to sequestering CO2 and utilizing this carbon as agricultural products. Bio-sequestration of CO2 using algae has been regarded as highly beneficial. In addition, algae are known to sequester Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P), and Potassium (K) from wastewater and is a complete biofertilizer to grow plants. We propose to investigate and develop how chemical fertilizer can be displaced with algal biomass produced using wastewater for growing cotton plants to reduce carbon footprint. In the first year, we will evaluate the CO2 uptake by algae using simulated flue gas and improve the efficiency of producing wild algal biomasses using a benchtop Rotating Algal Biofilm (RAB) reactor at the University of Houston (UH) by varying the minerals and sodium bicarbonate. We will demonstrate the RAB process for 45 days. The knowledge gained from this study that favors algal growth will be used in the existing pilot RAB water treatment plant operated by industrial partner Gross-Wen technologies to produce algal biomass, dry, and densify to pellet subsequently. These algal pellets will be evaluated as biofertilizers for the cotton plant in the greenhouse at UH with appropriate controls (chemical fertilizers and animal manure).


Supporting small-scale, underserved, and limited resources farmers for climate-smart commodities 

Key personnel:  Abdul Latif Khan (PI-UH)
Funding Agency: United State Department of Agriculture (NRCS) 
Collaborating partners: Praire View A & M University

Si plays a major role in increased stabilities between global CO2 and silicate weathering rate. Si – the second most abundant soil element (28.8%) in the earth’s crust is locked as recalcitrant silicate minerals. Chemical weathering of fresh silicate minerals releases DSi and consumes atmospheric CO2: CaSiO3+CO2 → CaCO3+SiO2. Several studies have shown Si as a beneficial mineral for plant growth and resistance to different biotic and biotic stresses such as salt and drought, extreme temperature, nutrient deficiency, aluminum toxicity, oxidative stresses, alkalinity, pathogen resistance, and herbivory. Cultivation of crops, erosion mitigation with buffer strips, and fertilization of Si-rich materials are some potential management strategies for CO2 sequestration. However very least is know at field level benefits for farmers and environmental conservation.

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