Lehman Professor Discovers New Effect of Plant Protein That Could Make Crops More Resistant to Climate Change

June 12, 2012 | Lehman College

BRONX, N.Y.–Lehman College Biological Sciences Professor Dr. Eleanore Wurtzel and her team of researchers have discovered an attribute of the CruP plant protein that could make crops more resistant to climate change. Dr. Wurtzel’s paper, “Lycopene cyclase paralog CruP protects against reactive oxygen species in oxygenic photosynthetic organisms,” is published in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Wurtzel’s team made this discovery while investigating the role of the protein in carotenoid biosynthesis—the process by which plants make the Vitamin A source betacarotene. “The evidence suggests that the CruP protein is a unique target for developing plants and algae with increased tolerance to temperature variation and other abiotic stresses that affect plant growth and development,“ she said. “The availability of stress-resistant plants will help address the issue of global food security in the face of climate change.”

Dr. Wurtzel’s research, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has important implications for increasing stress resistance in the plants and algae now used for food and biofuels, as well as for manufacturing purposes, like the production of clothing from cotton.

“This finding represents an important step in advancing efforts to address hunger and nutritional deficiencies affecting millions of people on this planet,” said Lehman President Ricardo R. Fernández. “Professor Wurtzel’s work has attracted researchers and graduate students from around the globe, and demonstrated our institutional mission to advance scientific knowledge and understanding.”

The Lehman campus houses the Plant Sciences Ph.D. subprogram of Biology, offered by the City University of New York Graduate Center, which Dr. Wurtzel chairs. This fall, as part of CUNY’s Decade of Science, Lehman will open a new $70 million science building—the first phase of a planned three-phase complex devoted to the sciences.

Dr. Wurtzel’s laboratory is known for its long-standing contributions in the effort to eliminate Vitamin A deficiency by creating healthier foods. This deficiency is a leading cause of blindness and increased mortality in 200 million children worldwide. Dr. Wurtzel has been named as a Fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Society of Plant Biologists for her work on carotenoid biosynthesis and her contributions to the scientific community.

The lead author on the paper, postdoctoral associate Dr. Louis Bradbury from Australia, altered production of the CruP protein and uncovered certain chemical changes in the modified plants. “We observed that the more of this protein the plants had, the better they seemed to deal with stress,” Dr. Wurtzel said. She added that the prior research on this protein had not focused on this particular effect. The plant Arabidopsis was used in this experiment. Grown in Dr. Wurtzel’s lab, it serves as a plant model for plant biologists worldwide.

Dr. Wurtzel, who joined the Lehman faculty in 1987, is also a faculty member of the Biology and Biochemistry Doctoral programs at the CUNY Graduate Center. She earned her Bachelor of Science in biochemistry and Ph.D. in molecular biology from SUNY Stony Brook, followed by postdoctoral training at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. In addition to the NIH, her research on plant provitamin A carotenoids has been funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, American Cancer Society, McKnight Foundation and National Science Foundation.

Contact: Keisha-Gaye Anderson / 718-960-8013 / keishagaye.anderson@lehman.cuny.edu