UMD Professor's research makes "sweet nectar" discovery

By KBJR News 1

March 22, 2014 Updated Mar 22, 2014 at 10:35 PM CDT

Duluth, MN (NNCNOW.com) - A professor at UMD is celebrating this week after his research on plant nectar creation and secretion has been published in the science journal, Nature.

Nectar is the sweet liquid produced by flowering plants. It encourages bees and other animals to help pollinate other flowers and thus pass on genetic material for plant reproduction.

It's long been known why flowers produce nectar, but now it's better understood how and what influences the creation of the sugar–like liquid.

It all starts in what are called the nectaries.

"You can identify which genes are turned on in the nectaries and so we identified a whole lot of genes that are turned on in the nectaries," said UMD Assoc. Prof. of Biology Clay Carter, "but they're not expressed in the leaves, petals, stem, roots, all of the other tissues."

After identifying those genes, the scientists turned off some of them to study their effects.

About 90 percent of all flowering plants require animals for pollination and although the research was done on this particular flower, it can be used on that 90 percent to better increase the nectar amounts that are in those plants.

The research has led to the ability to create plants that produce up to three times more nectar than those in the wild.

"Identifying these pathways could allow us to breed plants that produce more nectar and the more nectar a plant makes, the more pollinator attraction there is, the more yield you have," said Carter, "but also, of course, the more honey that can be made."

The project was started nearly six years ago and sifting through data was a big task to get to the desired results.

"So, in one of these experiments, typically you'll get a list of maybe 15,000 genes and we'll get expression levels for those 15,000 genes, so it's a lot of data to sift through," said UMD Assoc. Prof. of Math & Statistics Marshall Hampton. "The raw data would fill maybe 100,000 books."

Professor Carter worked with students at UMD as well as other scientists at the Carnegie Institute at Stanford and the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

Now the research is being shared in the highly respected scientific journal, Nature. The professor says this is a big deal for the students who worked on the project.

"It really can open up opportunities for them to obtain their P.H.D. or to go on and become professors," said Carter.

A sweet benefit to some sweet findings.

Professor Carter says it looks as if nectar production started about 150 million years ago, which coincides with the rapid introduction of many new species of plants and animals into the animal kingdom.

Bryce Henry