Rutgers‒Camden Scholar Aims to Prevent Harm to Agriculture by Studying How Plants Cope With Stress

Xingyun Qi

By Jeanne Leong

Research led by Rutgers University‒Camden biology professor Xingyun Qi on salinity stress to crops could help other scientists and farmers uncover ways to protect crops from destruction.

High salt conditions, one of the biggest threats to agriculture, impair crop development.

In Qi’s Rutgers–Camden research lab, she is studying how plants respond to environmental stress, such as drought, high salt, or extreme cold conditions, which could cause severe damage to crops.

“The sensitivity of crops to harsh climates and soil conditions is a major limitation for food production,” says Qi, an assistant professor, who recently joined Rutgers‒Camden’s biology department.
High salt conditions can kill plants and significantly impair crop yield on at least 20 percent of irrigated land worldwide, Qi explains.

Corn crops are particularly vulnerable to damage by high salt conditions. The effects of crop damage can have wide-ranging implications for access to food supplies.

As one of the most important food crops on the planet, corn has a variety of uses as a food source and as an additive to products such as ethanol in gasoline.

Damage caused by increased salinity in the soil of corn crops could affect humans as well as livestock around the world. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, corn is the most widely produced feed grain in the nation. Farmers feed corn to cattle, pigs, and chickens.

Qi says studies show that corn crop yields can decline by 50 percent under high salt conditions.

The popular vegetable is integral to the U.S. economy, so any damage to crops could have a bearing on the economy. In the 2018-19 crop marketing year, the United States exported more than $11 billion in corn to more than 70 countries.

In plant tissue, small pores known as stomata allow a plant to take in carbon dioxide, which is necessary for photosynthesis. The stomata, which look like tiny mouths, also help with transpiration, the exhalation of water vapor through the stomata. They also help to reduce water loss by closing when conditions are hot or dry.

While research has revealed the core molecular pathway of stomatal development and environmental factors including light and carbon dioxide to regulate stomatal formation, Qi is studying the regulation of salinity stress on stomatal development, an area that has not been explored extensively.

Understanding how plants withstand dangerous environmental conditions would minimize damage to crops and save farmers from losing crops and thousands of dollars in revenues.

“With my experience in plant biology, I hope my research can expand our knowledge a bit on plant tolerance mechanism, so that we can genetically engineer stress-tolerant plants.”

The Rutgers–Camden researcher is studying the model plant Arabidopsis, which has mild tolerance to environmental stresses. It is the organism of choice for a wide range of studies in plant sciences. The other plant Qi is studying is Thellungiella, which can tolerate high salt, drought, and cold conditions.

By comparing the effects of stresses on the two plants, Qi hopes to gain insight into the mechanism of plant stress tolerance.

Qi joins Rutgers‒Camden from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Washington, where she was a postdoctoral fellow studying the development of stomata.

In Qi’s lab at Rutgers‒Camden, she will expand on the plant biology work she has been doing for the past 10 years. “I can now pursue scientific questions using the unique combination of my knowledge and expertise, and make some contribution to our understanding of plant biology,” says Qi.

As an undergraduate student in China, Qi became interested in plant biology through her love of peonies, orchids, and lotus flowers. The structure, properties, and biochemical processes of growing flowers fascinated her.

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