Gill Tract researcher receives National Science Foundation grant

Damon Lisch

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A UC Berkeley researcher who works on UC-owned research land in Albany known as the Gill Tract was awarded a $1.3 million grant on July 27 for his work on corn.

Damon Lisch, a researcher with the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology in the College of Natural Resources, was granted $1.3 million out of $3.4 million to conduct research on epigenetics using corn.

The project, which is being conducted by Lisch and three other researchers — one at the University of Minnesota, one at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., and another at the University of Texas, Austin — is being funded by the National Science Foundation.

According to Lisch, because the science community knows much less about epigenetic variation than genetic variation, the project will answer essential questions about the role of epigenetic variation in organisms. While epigenetic variation does not yield noticeable changes, genetic variation results in noticeable changes in the nucleotide sequence of a DNA molecule.

“What is fascinating about epigenetic variation is that it is much more unstable than genetic variation and can be affected by environmental conditions,” Lisch said.  “Scientists think it might be an important aspect of variation in all higher organisms, but we don’t yet know how important.  This project is an attempt to get at that question using maize as a model.”

Lisch has conducted much of his corn research on the Gill Tract, a site he said has yielded groundbreaking discoveries in epigenetics, plant development and plant gene regulation. The same land had been occupied in April and May by members of Occupy the Farm, who continue to break into the land to tend crops they had planted there.

According to campus professor Miguel Altieri, who conducts research on the Gill Tract and supported the Occupy the Farm protest, the results of the research conducted by Lisch directly affects the production of genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs, by large food production businesses.

“A survey of biotechnology patents that cites the research of Lisch and of his colleagues shows that some of their research has, in fact, resulted in the production of GMO technologies,” Altieri said in an email. “While Lisch might not be conducting GMO trials at the Gill Tract directly for Big Agribusiness, some of his findings are of key importance to researchers who are developing transgenic crops for their corporate employers.”

Lisch responded to Altieri’s claims by stating that his research is important regardless of how it can be used.

“Professor Altieri is certainly entitled to his opinion, and it is true that our research, like all basic research, can be applied to a variety of applications, including those that he disapproves of,” Lisch said. “That being said, knowledge is probably preferable to ignorance.”

According to Nathan Springer, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Minnesota and principal investigator for the project, basic research on corn is still important to the study of genetics.

“First, in many ways corn provides an ideal organism for studies of genetics,” Springer said in an email. “It is easy to control crosses and to generate many offspring from any cross.  Second, the corn genome contains a mixture of genes and transposable elements. This genome organization is representative of most crop species.”

Springer said he is optimistic about the future of the project and anticipates that the capabilities of each of the researchers will yield a tremendous amount of discovery.

“Each of the four investigators brings unique research capabilities and expertise to this project,” Springer said. “I am excited about this collaboration and the potential for discoveries from this research.”