Lily Cheung, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has won a $1.1 million Human Science Frontier Program (HSFP) award to investigate the interplay of cellular movement and metabolism in grass stomata – the microscopic breathing valves on plant leaves.
New insights into how these tiny structures work could be exploited to bioengineer crops that can better withstand the drought and heatwaves associated with climate change.
“If you ate any corn, wheat, or rice today, you enjoyed sugars made from carbon that passed through stomata,” Cheung says. “Together, these three grass species provide half of all calories consumed by humans, and much of their agricultural success is credited to how fast their stomata work."
Caption: Grass stomata (Photo courtesy of Michael Raissig)
According to a United Nations statistic, the world will need to produce 50% more food by the middle of the century to account for population growth rates, changing diets, and the harmful effects of climate change on current agricultural practices.
“Ensuring food security, via biotechnology or any other means, is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century,” says Cheung, who is collaborating with biophysicist Anne-Lisa Routier Kierzkowska of the University of Montreal and plant biologist Michael Raissig of the University of Heidelberg on the three-year HFSP project.
The HFSP funds international, multidisciplinary collaborations focused on creating novel approaches to problems in fundamental biology. Cheung’s team, one of seven selected Early Career awards from a total of 158 letters of intent, joins a cohort of 94 awardees from 20 different countries.