Students and Assistant Professor of Biology Natalie Nannas experiment with the flexible DNA model.

Assistant Professor of Biology Natalie Nannas along with collaborators at the University of Georgia recently won a four-year National Science Foundation Grant for a project titled "Rebuilding a kinesin-based meiotic drive system from defined component." The $1,044,248 in awarded funding will support work to be done at both institutions.

The grant focuses on understanding how a selfish chromosome can escape the laws of genetics and drive its own inheritance. This particular chromosome hijacks cell machinery to ensure it becomes inherited in offspring. The researchers are interested in the molecular processes that underlie this process, and they will try to recreate the selfish chromosome in other species. 

Normally genetic material gets passed from parent to offspring according to a standard set of genetic laws. Scientists even call them the three laws of genetics because they are so solid and apply to all living organisms. Genetic material is packaged into chromosomes, and we usually inherit one set of chromosomes from our mother and another set of chromosomes from our father.

The researchers are studying a rare chromosome found in maize that breaks the laws of genetics. Normally chromosomes have a 50%-50% chance of being inherited by offspring through egg and sperm; this particular chromosome breaks this rule and forces itself into eggs, causing it to be inherited 80% of the time. Nannas and her colleagues are doing experiments to understand how this process works; one experiment will be to recreate the selfish chromosome to see if they can make it work in other species. If they can successfully recreate the selfish chromosome, it could be used to introduce agriculturally important traits, like drought resistance, pest resistance, etc. into crops more quickly and efficiently than standard breeding techniques.

Nannas’ portion of the grant provides support for students to work on the project, both during the academic year and during the summer. Travel funds will allow students to attend conferences to present their work, as well as funds to support new equipment purchases and publications. 

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