Mukhtar using genetic engineering to develop disease-resistant crops

karolina mukhtar sizedAs a world-renowned doctoral research university, UAB expects its teacher-scholars to win competitive grants and other awards to support their research. And they do not disappoint. This year, four professors have been chosen to receive National Science Foundation Career Awards — a prize the foundation describes among its most prestigious.

The NSF awards are provided to support the early career-development activities of professors who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization. At UAB, those faculty include Thamar Solorio, Ph.D., and Ragib Hasan, Ph.D., assistant professors of computer and information sciences, Eugenia Kharlampieva, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, and Karolina Mukhtar, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology.

The UAB Reporter has featured each of these outstanding researchers during the past few weeks and provided insight into their work and its promise. This week we focus on Mukhtar’s examination of the cellular process — the Unfolded Protein Response, a universal signaling pathway from yeast to mammals to plants. Specifically, Mukhtar studies regulatory mechanisms of pathogen-mediated, cellular stress-signaling in Arabidopsis plants to understand the key molecules in salicylic acid-induced defense responses and cell death. The insights should clarify the connection between the role of correct protein folding in the endoplasmic reticulum and activation of immune responses. The outcomes could better enable agricultural scientists to develop crop plants that can function under increased cellular stress. Mukhtar will use her $1.1 million NSF Career Award to advance this research.

Q: What was your reaction to being selected for this honor by the NSF?

A: It was rather shocking, and in a way, almost surreal. Given that the success rates in my specific program at NSF are below 5 percent, I was hoping for the best but expecting the worst. When the news came, I was overjoyed. It was definitely an unforgettable, life-changing moment. When I got off the phone with the NSF program officer, millions of thoughts and future research plans were racing through my head, but it took weeks to actually realize what that meant for me, my lab and my future as a researcher at UAB.

Q: What is the hypothesis of your research?

A: My research focuses on the battle between plants and their pathogenic microbes. Plants can get sick just like we can, but we don’t often think about plant diseases, which can represent billions of lost dollars in the worldwide economy. My lab is trying to discover genetic factors that can contribute to better resistance to these pathogenic agents, such as bacteria and fungi. We are using the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana because it is small, easy to propagate in the lab, grows quickly and has a sequenced genome. If we find something that works to inhibit plant diseases, then somebody else can take the information and apply it to crops. We don’t specifically work with agriculture, but the ultimate aim of the research is to have it apply to all plants.

Q: How did you become interested in this type of research?

A: I got into a doctoral program at Max Planck Institute in Germany, and I did rotations through labs before I picked a project. I got really excited about the dynamics of plants fighting diseases. I thought the plant-microbe battles were a lot cooler than studying the steady state. So I picked a project that related to diseases among potato plants. This work gave me a solid training in genetics, molecular biology and plant pathology.

When I was about to graduate, I decided to move to working with Arabidopsis, which is a far better system for asking basic biological questions than the relatively slow-growing and genetically complex potato. I was fortunate to do post-doctoral work with Dr. Xinnian Dong, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, at Duke University, where I got interested in the connection between the endoplasmic reticulum and plant immune responses. My research has been focused in this area since then.


The UAB Reporter has also featured the work of National Science Foundation Career Award winners Thamar Solorio, Ph.D., Eugenia Kharlampieva, Ph.D., and Ragib Hasan, Ph.D. 

Q: Why is it important to you to open an avenue for plant biology-related education for under-represented and socioeconomically underprivileged minorities?

A: The Career Awards require a strong and competitive outreach component, and I honestly feel that many of us at UAB are in a position to help underprivileged people. My inspiration came while I was one of the inaugural faculty fellows in Service Learning at UAB. Through this program I was able to develop ideas to integrate my research on plant immunology and involve  my students in community outreach.

Working with faculty at Miles College, we developed a summer program that will combine lectures, lab research and hands-on learning for students from UAB and Miles. The students in the Outreach Plant Pathology Clinic and Education (OUTPACE) program will work with the growers in the UAB Community Gardens to diagnose plant diseases. The first six-week OUTPACE clinic will be launched this June, and we will offer the program annually during the next five years.

Q: What does this award mean to you and for your research?

A: When I came to UAB in 2010 as the first and only plant biologist on campus, I had an idea and some modest start-up funds from the biology department to help me start my research. My group was very small. It was just me, one graduate student and several biology undergraduates interested in getting some research experience. We all worked extremely hard to obtain the preliminary results, which proved instrumental for the successful Career grant application.

Now that I’m funded, my lab will be able to grow. We are anticipating two new post-doctoral researchers and another graduate student to join us this fall. I will be able to expand my research niche and ask questions that have been in my head all these years but I never had the resources to pursue until now.

Overall, I will be able to build a solid scholastic program that is well integrated with research, relevant to the UAB’s mission and vision, focused on unique educational needs in the region and sufficiently broad to build a base for a lifetime of productive and rewarding teaching and outreach activities.