A UC Davis plant pathologist has won a five-year $975,305 early career development award from the National Science Foundation to support research and science education related to plants’ innate immune responses.
The award to Gitta Coaker, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, will fund research on proteins involved in the disease-fighting immune responses of plants, an area of research that is key to increasing global food production. The grant also will contribute to related science education at the high school, undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral levels.
“I am thrilled to have been selected to receive this award and excited to expand our research investigating very early changes during plant immune perception,” Coaker said. “Although scientists have a good understanding of transcriptional changes, how this corresponds to changes at the protein level remains elusive. Working with the UC Davis proteomics core, we will investigate and characterize dynamic changes occurring at the protein level in response to pathogen perception.”
Coaker’s research program focuses on the plant immune system, which is triggered by two types of signals to resist infection by a variety of disease-causing microorganisms. One signal relies on receptor proteins outside the cell that recognize specific molecular features of an invading microbe, while the other signal uses similar proteins within the cell to recognize an invading microbe during the infection process.
The early career award will support research aimed at defining proteins found in the plant’s plasma — or cell — membrane, to better understand the role that those proteins play in the very early responses of the plant’s defense mechanism.
In relation to this research, Coaker will train and mentor a high school teacher and high school students from the local community as they learn to screen the research plant species Arabidopsis for mutant lines that carry traits related to disease resistance. An accompanying laboratory training module also will be developed for use in high school biology courses.
Coaker earned her doctoral degree in genetics and plant pathology in 2003 from The Ohio State University and her bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology in 1998 from the University of Arizona.