Dr. Jennifer Mandel secures $2.2 million grant from NSF to study sunflowers

Sept. 1, 2022 UofM’s Dr. Jennifer Mandel, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, and her collaborative team comprising researchers Daniel Jones at Auburn University and John Burke of the University of Georgia, have been awarded a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation Division of Integrative Organismal Systems – Plant Genome Research Project to study the genomics of inflorescence development and evolution in the sunflower family. 

The project, entitled “Comparative genomics of the capitulum: deciphering the molecular basis of a key floral innovation,” will use the latest genomic technologies to discover the genes that control how the sunflower head inflorescence, or capitulum, develops and evolved. The iconic sunflower capitulum is not just a single flower but actually a composite of many small flowers (sometimes hundreds) that appear and ecologically function as one large flower. Evolutionary biologists hypothesize that the capitulum is key to the success of the sunflower family which makes up ca. 10% of the world’s flowering plant biodiversity and includes numerous species of horticultural, medicinal and industrial value plus economically important food crops such as artichoke, lettuce and safflower.

“The genomic resources needed to study the evolution of sunflowers, including what traits enabled them to be so successful, have really lagged,” said Mandel. “One trait we think is important for the family's success is the type of inflorescence it has, a capitulum. 

“You see, the sunflower 'flower' is actually a group of flowers that resemble a single flower, and all members of the family have this trait. Our project will generate new genomic resources and tools that will be important for studying the evolution of the capitulum, plus aid future efforts to alter and improve inflorescence structures in crops, both in the sunflower family and others.”

Little is known about the genes involved in capitulum development and understanding how inflorescences develop has the potential to improve food security through optimization of floral structures for yield in crops, and by accelerating progress toward new crop development. This work by Mandel and her collaborators will also increase available genomic resources for the sunflower family and result in the development of novel tools for gene editing in the family. 

Mandel will receive $811,531 from the National Science Foundation over the next four years for this project which will also provide educational opportunities for diverse students and researchers at multiple training levels, through directed efforts to recruit individuals from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Mandel and members of her lab (mandel-lab.org) study sunflowers and their relatives to understand the mechanisms that drive and maintain plant biodiversity. Research from her lab also focuses on using genetics and genomics approaches to study crop and wild species. Mandel’s research has been funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution. Mandel, who has been at the University for nearly nine years, has published more than 60 peer-reviewed articles in high impact journals including Nature and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She is also a member of the member of the Department of Biological Sciences Center for Biodiversity and the FedEx Institute of Technology’s ENDEAVOR-AgriTech Leadership Team. 

Photo cutline: Dr. Jennifer Mandel (left) and PhD student Erika Moore are collecting sunflowers and pressing them to be deposited at the University of Memphis Herbarium.