MU plant science professor wins $1 million grant

Thursday, March 28, 2013 | 6:21 p.m. CDT; updated 6:26 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 28, 2013
David G. Mendoza-Cozatl, center, shown with members of his lab, has received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to continue his research into the molecular transport of heavy metals in plants.

COLUMBIA— A recently hired plant science professor at MU has been given the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award for young scientists and a five-year, $1 million grant for his work on plant nutrition.

David Mendoza-Cozatl, an assistant professor of plant sciences, was recently awarded a five-year CAREER grant from the foundation to continue research on the nutrient transport system in plants.

The grant also supports efforts to promote interdisciplinary education programs in science.

Research could improve human nutrition

Mendoza-Cozatl’s research focuses on how plants transport molecules, such as nutrients and toxic metals, to leaves and seeds. Some heavy metals, such as iron, zinc and copper, are necessary nutrients for humans, but others, such as mercury and lead, can be toxic in high concentrations.

To reach the seeds or travel among leaves, nutrients must reach the pholem, one of the plant's two circulatory systems, with the help of transporter proteins. Each type of molecule has a specific transporting protein, but most of these proteins remain unidentified, Mendoza-Cozatl said.

By identifying which proteins move which molecules, he hopes to engineer plants that can provide more iron and other essential nutrients for the people who consume them.

A lack of iron is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, and it can cause anemia and other conditions, according to the World Health Organization.

Other potential applications involve using plants that absorb toxic metals in the soil to clean contaminated areas or limiting the amount of toxic metals a plant will absorb so crops will not pass these metals along to animals or humans. Some heavy metals have been linked to health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer.

Interdisciplinary education programs

In addition to the research component, the CAREER grant helps develop the careers of junior faculty “who effectively integrate teaching, learning and discovery.”

For the education portion, Mendoza-Cozatl proposed two interdisciplinary programs: one to encourage collaboration by biological engineers and plant scientists and another to give students interested in science journalism an opportunity to work in a lab.

The strength of the education component of a CAREER application can make or break chances to receive the grant, he said.

“The science usually isn’t the problem,” he said. “It’s the educational component and how you integrate the two that make the difference for the CAREER award.”

He is working with Heather K. Hunt, an assistant professor of bioengineering, to set up meetings between graduate students in plant science and bioengineering to try to find potential areas of collaboration and give their students experience working across disciplines.

“We’re trying to identify common ground for collaboration,” Mendoza-Cozatl said.

Interdisciplinary research benefits scientists by giving them access to new tools and  novel solutions from other fields, he said.

“Engineers are taught how to solve complex problems,” Hunt said. “In some cases, the interesting problems are in different disciplines.”

Learning to work with scientists in other fields gives engineering students marketable skills and helps them learn how to communicate with people in other fields who don’t use the same terminology, she said.

“It can be hard to bridge the language gap between disciplines,” Hunt said. “But the future relies on bridging that gap.”

Mendoza-Cozatl is also setting up a program to embed journalism students in his lab, where they would actively participate in research and then publish photos, videos or writing about the experience.

This program is part of a campuswide initiative to improve communication about scientific research, said John Stemmle, an MU assistant strategic communication professor and co-director of the Health Communication Research Center, who is working with Mendoza-Cozatl on the program.

“The more that journalists are able to get where scientists are coming from to better tell their stories, the better they can provide the public with more knowledge about the scientific process and scientific research,” Stemmle said.

'An institution where research can work'

Mendoza-Cozatl was hired in September 2011 after completing postdoctoral work at the University of California-San Diego.

He received multiple job offers following his postdoctoral training but chose MU because of the facilities and support for research.

From his lab in the Bond Life Sciences Center, he needs only to cross the hall to reach the DNA  core, which analyses the expression of genes, or the proteomic core, which analyses proteins for his research.

“Great facilities really make the difference,” he said.

The university’s interdisciplinary approach to research also drew Mendoza-Cozatl. He is a member of MU’s Interdisciplinary Plant Group, which is made of 57 faculty members from five different disciplines, all interested in research on plants.

“It’s important to find an institution where research can work,” he said.

Senior faculty from the group, including Director Bob Sharp, mentored Mendoza-Cozatl since he arrived on campus, and several group members looked over his grant proposal before he submitted it.

“We’re proud of David’s accomplishment in receiving this prestigious award,” Sharp said. “David’s program on heavy metal transport in plants is a key component of the effort to expand our strengths in plant stress biology.”

Mendoza-Cozatl credits the six members of his lab at MU for the success of the research.

“This is a lab effort, and I just happen to be at the helm,” he said.

Now that he has received a CAREER grant, Mendoza-Cozatl is eligible for the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the U.S. government’s highest award for young researchers. Twenty CAREER grantees are nominated for the higher honor each year.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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