1. Staff

Rick Nelson, Ph.D.

Professor and Research Administrator

Current Research

The Problem

Problem 1: We do not adequately understand how viruses move within cells to position themselves for successful intercellular movement and subsequent disease induction in plants. Without this understanding we are less able to devise the best, most targeted and least disruptive method to modify plants to obtain resistance to virus-induced diseases. We aim to understand the interactions of plant and virus components that enable virus intracellular movement so that we can devise novel methods that inhibit this process without affecting plant development.

Problem 2: In grasses, it is difficult to gain rapid and meaningful information on plant gene function through existing technologies. A method to modify gene expression rapidly and then study the effect of this modification on plant traits such as sustainability is needed for production of plants with advanced agronomic traits.

The Approach

Approach 1: We use methods of plant transcript and plant-virus protein interaction analyses to identify genes and their products that may influence virus intracellular movement. We then use molecular, genetic and cell biological techniques to verify or refute a function of the plant gene in virus movement and subsequent disease induction. If the gene is verified to affect virus movement, we evaluate whether its modified expression can prevent virus accumulation while allowing normal plant development. Those that fulfill these requisites are considered for application, producing plants more resistant to viruses.

Approach 2: We have developed a system to silence genes in grasses using a virus vector. Expression of a gene fragment from a plant through a virus infection results in recognition of the virus and plant gene fragment sequences by the plant host and their destruction through a plant-mediated defense. This process, referred to as virus-induced gene silencing (VIGS), has been utilized in various plant species to determine the function of plant genes rapidly (within two months). We will be using our virus vectors that infect grasses to silence activity of target genes under evaluation for their influence on plant traits including those that benefit nitrogen, phosphorus and water use efficiencies. Those genes in which the modified expression improves one of these efficiencies will be targeted for evaluation in applied studies and eventual agricultural application.

Current Projects

  • Mechanistic studies on virus intracellular transport and their application in producing virus-resistant plants
  • Use of viruses to determine plant gene function in grasses to improve plant traits such as sustainability
  • Doctor of Philosophy in Biology, University of Illinois, 1985
  • Master of Science in Agronomy, University of Illinois, 1982
  • Bachelor of Arts in Biology and Psychology, Washington University, 1978