MSU Innovator of the Year seeks plant improvement

Federica Brandizzi, MSU Foundation Professor of plant biology and a member of the MSU-DOE Plant Research Lab focuses on plant efficiency

Federica Brandizzi, MSU Foundation Professor of plant biology

Federica Brandizzi, MSU Foundation Professor of plant biology and a member of the MSU-DOE Plant Research Lab (PRL), has devoted her career to improving the sustainability and efficiency of plants. 

In 2020, she was recognized as MSU Innovation Center’s Innovator of the Year Award for her research on increasing plant size and height, allowing them to maximize the space used for crops. “By creating plants that grow bigger and taller in the field, you save water, space and nutrients,” Brandizzi said.

“In a nutshell, what we do in our lab is to understand how we can increase plant productivity,” Brandizzi said. “But what makes us unique is that we look at creating bigger plants and more digestible plants to support human and animal nutrition, as well as improved biomass for the production of biofuel and bioproducts. We strive to understand how plants contribute directly to health and sustainable energy.”

Through her research, Brandizzi searches for ways to better equip plants to manage stress. One of the mechanisms plants use to respond is the unfolded protein response -- a signaling pathway activated when a stressor affects the organelle called endoplasmic reticulum. This organelle, which produces one-third of the proteins that make up plants and humans, can make mistakes when stressed. 

Through a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Brandizzi is comparing the unfolded protein response in plants to that of humans. 

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Federica Brandizzi

“These mistakes can be potentially lethal, because the proteins they produce are unlikely of good quality,” she said. “The unfolded protein response is activated to make sure that the endoplasmic reticulum does a good job. And if it doesn't, it actually kills the cell so that there are no mistakes propagating in an organism.”

Brandizzi said her research also provides an alternative model to better understand human response to pathogens and stressors. 

Studying how plants respond to stress can be adapted to the mechanisms of the human body. Plants can be mutated and placed under a variety of different stressors to understand complex unfolded protein responses.

“Because the pathways between mammals and plants are similar, by understanding which genes participate in the unfolded protein response in plants, we can contribute to human health,” she said. “The unfolded protein response in humans is connected with a number of devastating conditions like cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. So, if we can help human health by understanding the processes of plants I think we can really make an impact.”

Brandizzi’s work is also looking to the future for ways humans can sustain life in space through a grant from NASA. Seeds from her lab were sent to the International Space Station to test their unfolded protein response in outer space. 

“We are excited, because I think we can make an impact and break ground on understanding how plants respond in space and it allows us to lay the foundation to generate sustainable ecosystems in space,” she said.

Brandizzi said MSU plant scientists play a vital role in the future of global health and sustainable energy.

“My biggest goal is to define an intellectual and methodological framework to understand how we can improve plants. I would like to lay the groundwork that enables the next generation of scientists to continue what we started,” she said.

Brandizzi said building connections to researchers is one of her favorite parts of the job.

“The thing that really drives me to come to work every morning is interacting with my people and sharing the successes that they have,” she said. “Every day in the lab there is a new discovery, and it's just amazing to see the power of discovery.”

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

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