The focus of research in the Van Eck laboratory is biotechnological approaches for the study of gene function and crop improvement. The lab focuses on developing genetic transformation technology. This makes it possible to design and introduce gene constructs into plant cells, which subsequently regenerate into plants with altered phenotypes.
The Van Eck group is experienced in the design of tissue culture and Agrobacterium tumefaciens-mediated transformation methods, which can be used to 1) study gene function, 2) unravel the intricacies of metabolic networks, and 3) further the development of novel model systems to discover genes that can be used to improve crop species. Most recently, the Van Eck group has developed transformation systems for the rapid cycling C4 grass, Setaria viridis, which is expected to become a valuable model system for corn, and for Taxus, in order to make it possible to metabolically engineer this species to produce higher quantities of taxol; Taxol is used as a chemotherapy treatment. Currently, they are developing methods for Asclepias (milkweed) and Solidago (goldenrod) because both have the potential to be used as model systems for the study of plant/insect interactions.
In addition to developing transformation technology, the Van Eck group also performs transformations on a fee for service basis. The plant species they transform routinely include tomato, potato, Brachypodium distachyon, Setaria viridis, Medicago truncatula, Nicotiana benthamiana, N. tabacum, and NT1 suspension cultures.
The Van Eck laboratory has collaborated with Dr. Li Li’s lab, at the USDA Federal Nutrition Lab on the Cornell campus, to study the Or gene, which was discovered as a dominant mutation in cauliflower that promotes chromoplast development, resulting in orange florets and substantially increased carotenoid accumulation. When transferred to potato, the mutant cauliflower Or gene enhances carotenoid accumulation in tubers, which increases further during cold storage. This gene has substantial promise to alleviate vitamin A deficiency, a cause of childhood blindness and death. A second approach takes a different metabolic strategy in the same pathway that has been modified in Golden Rice. The Crtb gene product transforms beta-carotene, a Vitamin A precursor, into zeaxanthin. Silencing this gene in potato results in beta-carotene levels about 30 times higher than in wild-type plants. These two approaches have great promise to increase beta-carotene and thus enhance the vitamin A content of vegetables and grains.
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