Examining plant genetics with an eye on the future

Addie Thompson is a maize researcher with the Plant Resilience Institute working to predict the way plants interact with their environment

Addie Thompson.
Addie Thompson is a maize researcher with the Plant Resilience Institute

It was the World Food Prize Youth Institute that set Michigan State University Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences Professor Addie Thompson on her path toward a career in crop genetics.

“I am a product of a number of youth programs that were designed to get students that weren’t necessarily growing up in agriculture excited about working in agriculture. That has played a big role in shaping who I am and what I do,” said Thompson, a maize researcher with MSU’s Plant Resilience Institute (PRI).

World Food Prize and World Food Prize Youth Institute were both created by Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in agricultural plant breeding, sustainable food research and philanthropy. They honor individuals of all ages who serve in the field of agriculture. 

“Borlaug had a really strong desire to encourage the youth of America, especially in Iowa where I grew up, to get involved in agriculture,” Thompson said. “The problems that exist with global food security are not going to solve themselves, so he was looking to find the next generation of people to take on these challenges.”

Thompson’s work with PRI strives to predict the way plants grow and interact with their environment as they develop and the climate changes. By using high-throughput phenotyping techniques, genetics and crop modeling, she anticipates how changes, such as a drought, will affect yields and what varieties have the greatest resistance to environmental stresses.

Her research collaborations include the Genomes to Fields Initiative, an “initiative to support the translation of genomic information for the benefit of growers, consumers and society.” The partnership consolidates plant research through collaborations in many different areas across the world to build a database of traits and environmental interactions.

“The idea is to put as many genotypes into as many environments as possible to learn how different varieties handle each environmental factor, and how those components interact,” she said. 

Thompson is also focused on finding solutions to combat tar spot in maize, a disease that threatens Michigan’s corn industry.

“Tar spot is a disease that can cause up to 40 percent yield loss in some cases,” Thompson said. “It’s a new disease in the U.S. as of about five years ago and it has already blown up and hit many states across the Midwest.

“We had no idea what the resistance was of any U.S. maize varieties, so we jumped on this as soon as we heard about it. It’s a huge opportunity. It’s not every day a geneticist gets to investigate a brand-new disease.”

Her work on tar spot is funded through Project GREEEN, PRI, the Michigan Corn Marketing Program Committee, and a new USDA-NIFA multi-state collaborative grant led by Thompson titled “Great Lakes Tar Spot Initiative: Mobilizing Resistance in Maize.”

Thompson said plant breeders and researchers are on the front lines of food security work.

“Breeders are actually producing the varieties for farmers to use,” she said. “That’s not my role exactly, but it’s extremely important to me, because I am doing the research that contributes to the work of plant breeding. 

“I can take on a little bit more risk since I’m not relying on getting a product to market, and I can also conduct a little bit more basic science that informs the targets breeders would go after.”

As lead of an interdisciplinary Strategic Partnership Grant on plant phenomics from the University Foundation and a trainer in MSU’s new NSF Research Training “IMPACTS” (Integrated training Model in Plant And CompuTational Sciences) program, Thompson is excited about the future of plant research and the collaborations MSU is fostering. 

“I think what has been one of the most exciting things for me is getting to be at Michigan State at a time when we're really starting to see more mobilization and a lot of interest and investment in the space between computational and plant sciences,” she said.

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