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NMSU celebrates NSF grant to study benefits of tropical 'miracle tree'

  • By Audry Olmsted
  • 575-921-4056
  • aolmsted@nmsu.edu
  • Feb 15, 2013
Vertical shot of Bailey
New Mexico State University, at a Research Rally Feb. 15, honored a researcher who has received an $861,269 National Science Foundation grant to conduct transcriptome sequencing of the "miracle tree," a plant found in the tropics that holds great potential for sustainable agriculture.

Through this project, Donovan Bailey, NMSU associate professor of biology, and his team will study the genome characteristics of a genus of tropical, nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs (Leucaena) that provide protein rich leaves for use in animal feed, green manure used as nitrogen-rich fertilizer, and rapidly renewable woody biomass for construction, fuel wood and biofuels.

"Leucaena is a lesser-known crop in the tropics, but it has tremendous significance to us as humans, and to us economically, ecologically and agriculturally," Bailey said. "This is considered a multipurpose crop that represents key elements in sustainable agriculture that are fundamental to production gains in mainstream crops grown in impoverished regions."

There are 24 nitrogen-fixing species of small trees and shrubs in the genus Leucaena. The unusually high protein content of its leaves has helped the plant to garner the names "miracle tree" and "alfalfa of the tropics." It is found largely in Mexico and parts of South America.

Bailey said the goal of the project is to investigate how plant transcriptomes, sets of genomic information unique to a specific plant cell population, change through time and in association with diversification of species. Researchers will sequence, assemble and compare sets of expressed genes from all species of Leucaena.

"We will also conduct insect feeding trials to identify genes and broad metabolic pathways associated with insect resistance and susceptibility among different species of the plant," Bailey said.

Researchers will also investigate broad patterns of transcriptome size variation and identify some of the specific changes that have been associated with speciation through geographic isolation in comparison to hybrid speciation associated with genome duplication. The data generated will be used to develop molecular markers for plant breeding and other studies.

This NSF Mid-Career Award-Plant Genome Research grant funds the work of Bailey as the principal investigator, a postdoctoral fellow, and graduate and undergraduate students. The project includes the implementation of a new course and the development of undergraduate laboratories to advance interest in and the understanding of plant genome research among students.

The Office of the Vice President for Research hosts a series of Research Rallies to inform the university community and stakeholders within New Mexico about NMSU's research successes and contributions. These rallies honor faculty and staff investigators for significant externally funded projects and elevate awareness about NMSU's research efforts and their impact on the New Mexico community and the common body of knowledge. The campus leadership, government officials and the media are invited to participate in the Research Rallies and to learn about the important work being done on a specific research project.