Centenary faculty member partners in $2 million National Science Foundation grant

L to R: Isabella Kreko, Lauren McHan, Alexandra Naron, and Dr. Rebecca Murphy at the High Performance Computing Center at the University of Arizona.

SHREVEPORT, LA — Dr. Rebecca Murphy, associate professor of biology at Centenary, is one of four scientists leading a project to identify RNA modifications in plant cells that may enable the development of crops better able to withstand the stress of climate change. She and her collaborators recently received a $2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to support their research and to focus on building undergraduate curricula teaching biology as a data-driven science.

Dr. Andrew Nelson of the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, New York, is the primary investigator for the project along with Murphy, Dr. Brian Gregory of the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Eric Lyons of the University of Arizona. Murphy previously collaborated with Nelson on an NSF-funded grant from August 2018 through 2020 where she received training in computational biology/bioinformatics at University of Arizona.

The grant project, entitled, “TRTech-PGR: Identification and characterization of stress-responsive and evolutionary conserved epitranscriptomic modification sites in plant transcriptomes,” will provide resources for the four scientists to identify and infer the functional significance of dozens of different types of RNA modifications in 15 diverse model and crop species. After mapping publicly available RNA sequence data from the 15 species, the team will run the data through two different algorithms to identify key modifications and pose a series of key questions to illuminate the connection between modifications and some critical cellular processes, examining, for instance, the significance of modifications that occur in the roots of a plant and the impact of drought conditions on the process of gene modification.

The portion of the $2 million grant coming to Centenary via Murphy’s involvement will fund a summer research experience for one or two students to work on-site at Boyce Thompson Institute alongside Murphy and Nelson. The students will also be able to interact with other faculty at BTI and Cornell as part of a cohort of other undergraduates doing summer research. In addition to housing and stipends, they will also receive funds to present the results of their work at the American Society of Plant Biology annual meeting.

Funding from this grant will provide Murphy with training on additional informatics techniques, which will help her continue to add more advanced bioinformatics training into her Centenary courses. Her previous NSF grant collaboration with Nelson helped her develop a teaching module for analysis of large RNAseq datasets. As a result, Murphy and three Centenary undergraduates - Isabella Kreko, Lauren McHan, and Alexandra Naron - contributed to a manuscript published earlier this year reporting the development of a browser based app hosted by CyVerse for the RNAseq analysis.

The funding for the present RNA modification investigation will also have a huge impact on Murphy’s own research.

“I will have resources and further training to support ongoing work involving the analysis of transcriptome level changes associated with circadian rhythms and flowering/grain production in crop species,” explains Murphy. “This will allow us to understand much more about how plants respond to environmental cues and adapt to changing climate.”

Murphy, a 2006 graduate of Centenary, earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Texas A&M University and joined the Centenary biology department faculty in August 2012. Her research is focused on focused on the improvement of agriculturally important crop species, with emphasis on flowering time regulation in Sorghum bicolor. She leads the Murphy Research Group, affectionately named “Children of the Sorghum,” at the College and provides undergraduate students with opportunities for meaningful scientific research and public engagement.


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