175 Biotechnology Building
Ithaca, NY 14853
Christy Gault- Postdoctoral scientist, Buckler lab, Cornell University
My goal in the Buckler lab is to find a way to engineer freezing tolerance in maize. Maize can’t usually survive prolonged freezes, which limits its growing season and productivity. Our vision of freezing-tolerant maize could be developed into two forms: a maize line that can be planted earlier in the spring, and an overwintering maize line for the southern United States. Both forms would produce more grain due to an extended growing season while providing longer periods of soil cover to reduce water run-off and soil erosion. Many cereal crops, such as wheat, barley, and oats, have winter varieties that are sown in autumn and harvested the following summer or autumn. Winter varieties produce higher yields than comparable spring varieties for each cereal crop species. An overwintering maize line would fix more carbon with fewer inputs due to its C4 biochemistry, resulting in a higher yielding maize variety.
Because maize doesn’t possess freezing tolerance, we study a closely related grass genus that does. The perennial grasses in the Tripsacum genus can overwinter in a dormant state and have adapted to environments stretching from New York to South America. The Tripsacum genus diverged from the Zea genus less than 1.2 million years ago, prior to the domestication of maize. Even though Tripsacum and maize share most of their gene content, the basis for freezing tolerance in Tripsacum and freezing sensitivity in maize remains largely unknown. We are harnessing the natural diversity in Tripsacum germplasm to discover the mechanisms that confer freezing tolerance in northern Tripsacum individuals compared to southern Tripsacum individuals. Expression profiling and statistical genetic techniques will help uncover freezing tolerance genes.
Why I became a plant biologist
I majored in molecular biology as an undergraduate in a small liberal arts school, Colgate University. One semester, all the molecular biology and genetics classes filled up before it was my turn to register. Unable to take courses for my major, I ended up enrolling in a wetland ecology class taught by Kristine Hopfensperger. We took several field trips to lush and wild wetlands such as bogs and riparian areas in central New York. The class gave me an appreciation for natural diversity and the importance of environmental preservation. I wanted to use my molecular biology training to help mitigate the environmental stresses caused by human activities. I became a plant biologist to contribute to sustainable intensification in order to produce more food with less environmental degradation. I believe that the best way I can do this is to apply our understanding of genetic networks in order to develop improved, high-yielding crop varieties.Education
For my bachelor’s degree, I majored in Molecular Biology at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY. One summer, I worked with Kristine Hopfensperger to study the environmental parameters controlling greenhouse gas production in riparian areas of the Adirondacks. I conducted my senior year independent research in Frank Frey’s lab where I studied the disease dynamics of Salmonella in the endangered Ugandan mountain gorilla populations.
I then moved to sunny Florida where I earned my Ph.D. Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Florida in 2014. My dissertation co-advisors were Mark Settles, a maize geneticist and developmental biologist, and Brad Barbazuk, who specializes in computational genomics and alternative splicing. I really enjoyed being a member of both of their labs, as I gained interdisciplinary training in bioinformatics, maize genetics, and molecular biology. My dissertation project investigated the role of alternative splicing in maize kernel development. I used RNA-seq to characterize splicing defects in the splicing factor mutant, rough endosperm3.