Fulbright award turns up heat on plant study

Adela Talbot // Western News

Joseph Stinziano, a PhD candidate in Biology, will spend the remainder of the academic year at the University of New Mexico as one of 15 Canadian Fulbright Students. The scholarship recognizes academic excellence and community involvement, granting the recipient funds and the opportunity to study for nine months at an American institution. Stinziano’s research will look at the boechera depauperata – a heat-tolerant plant that can thrive in temperatures as high as 40 degrees Celsius – in order to determine what can be done to improve heat tolerance in other plants.

By the time you read this, Joseph Stinziano will already be in Albuquerque, N.M., honing in on the secrets of boechera depauperata – a heat-tolerant plant that can thrive in temperatures as high as 40 degrees Celsius.

Stinziano, a PhD candidate in Biology, will spend the remainder of the academic year at the University of New Mexico, as one of 15 Canadian Fulbright Students studying south of the border. The award is given to exemplary students, recognizing both excellence in scholarship and a commitment to community, and grants its recipient $15,000 (U.S.) to support nine months of research at an American institution.

His research will look to determine the effect of heat stress on photosynthesis – the process by which plants use energy from sunlight to produce chemical energy the plant can use as fuel. He will try to determine the mechanism of thermotolerance in the highly heat-tolerant plant boechera depauperata. Stinziano will also look at gene expression levels in the plant, with the aim of hopefully providing genetic targets to improve thermal tolerance in crops.

“One thing I’m particularly interested in is thermal responses of plants to the environment – mostly how plants will respond to climate change,” Stinziano said.

“One particular issue is feeding the plant. That’s what this Fulbright scholarship will do – hopefully give us some options to producing more tolerant crops. By 2050, we have to double food production; that’s accounting for losses of food due to plant stress and freak weather events,” he added. “We can’t continue increasing crop yields at the rate we have been, because if you look at increases in crop yields from one decade to the next, they’ve been declining since the 1970s when the green revolution happened.”

With this nod to advances in plant-breeding techniques and widespread use of fertilizer, Stinziano continued, genetic variability present in crops has been tapped out. We stand at a plateau. So, in order to increase crop yields, we have to do some genetic manipulation – at least on the scientific side of things, he noted.

One option is genetically modifying crops to specialize in certain environments. In Stinziano’s case, that means focusing on heat stress and tolerance.

“Sometimes crops aren’t the best model organism because they have low genetic variability and don’t necessarily have the ability to respond favourably to a stress. With thermal stress, we want to look at plants that are more extreme cases – this particular heat-tolerant plant I’m going to be looking at can maintain photosynthesis above 40 degrees Celsius and be quite happy – which is very rare for a plant,” he said.

Comparing this plant to regular plants could allow scientists to genetically modify crops to become more thermal tolerant in the future, and could prevent losses in yield.

“With climate change, there are going to be more frequent heat waves. For the most part, we are already farming all the land we can afford to farm and still maintain the biosphere, so we have to make better use of the land we do have. And conditions are only getting worse for the land we do have. If we have crops more tolerant to heat, we can at least maintain crop yields or take steps to increase them because they won’t be affected by the heat.”

Stinziano, who chairs the Society of Biology Graduate Students at Western and sits on the Ecological and Environmental Planning Advisory Committee for the City of London, will also be involved in some community work while in New Mexico. He plans to settle in and get a sense for what the community needs. From there, he will apply for a leadership project grant to pursue an environmentally friendly initiative in Albuquerque.

He would also like to engage with the community by means of a ‘scientific café.’

“There’s a website that lets you set up a monthly meeting, not just for scientists but anyone who wants to learn about science and have philosophical discussions and I was thinking of setting up one of these,” Stinziano said.

“People really crave philosophical discussions and learning about science, but oftentimes scientists don’t do a very good job of making their work easy to understand or philosophical issues easy to understand. When I was in Fort Collins (Colorado) recently, I joined this café and we met weekly to discuss philosophical issues – and people from all sectors of the public were there – academics, high school students, retired people – and they were all really engaged in discussing philosophy and science. That made me realize the public really craves learning about science. There just needs to be an easier way to get access to the people, topics and discussion.”