Welcome to the Heng Zhang Lab

On average over half of the world’s crop yield is lost to abiotic stress. The main scientific question of interest to us is how plants balance growth and abiotic stress responses. Natural variations exist in the growth and stress response both within and between plant species. Delineating these differences and dissecting the underlying mechanisms will help improve crop productivity. Our research projects are generally divided into two aspects. On one hand, we study the evolution and genetics of plants/crops that adapt to harsh environments (aka extremophytes); on the other hand, we use the model organism Arabidopsis thaliana to study how abiotic stress affects cellular energy status and stress responses. In particular, we study the function of protein acetylation in linking primary metabolism and abiotic stress response and translational regulation in early heat stress response.

1. Evolution of extremophytes

Extremophytes are plants that are evolutionarily adapted to harsh environments. We are particularly interested in the amaranth family of flowering plants (Amaranthaceae), which contains the largest number of halophytes and C4 plants. Our goal is to use comparative genomics to identify the critical events during genome evolution of extremophytes and link them to phenotypes.

Related publication(s):

  • Zou C#, Chen A, Xiao L, Muller HM, Ache P, Haberer G, Zhang M, Jia W, Deng P, Huang R, Lang D, Li F, Zhan D, Wu X, Zhang H, Bohm J, Liu R, Shabala S, Hedrich R*, Zhu JK*, Zhang H* (2017) A high-quality genome assembly of quinoa provides insights into the molecular basis of salt bladder-based salinity tolerance and the exceptional nutritional value. Cell Res 27:1327-1340.
  • Zhang H#*, Li Y, Zhu JK* (2018) Developing naturally stress-resistant crops for a sustainable agriculture. Nat Plants 4:989-996.
  • Zou C#, Li L, Miki D, Li D, Tang Q, Xiao L, Rajput S, Deng P, Peng L, Jia W, Huang R, Zhang M, Sun Y, Hu J, Fu X, Schnable PS, Chang Y, Li F, Zhang H, Feng B, Zhu X, Liu R, Schnable JC, Zhu JK*, Zhang H* (2019) The genome of broomcorn millet. Nat Commun 10:436.

2. Genetic bases of agronomic traits in quinoa

Some extremophytes including quinoa and broomcorn millet are the earliest domesticated crops in human history. However, they are still at a semi-domesticated status, so there is great potential to increase their yield. We study the genetic bases of important agronomic traits in quinoa using classic genetic approaches such as genome wide association studies (GWAS) and quantitative trait locus (QTL) mapping. We plan to apply the acquired knowledge to molecular breeding in quinoa.

Related publication(s):

  • Zhang H#*, Li Y, Zhu JK* (2018) Developing naturally stress-resistant crops for a sustainable agriculture. Nat Plants 4:989-996.
  • Kiani-Pouya A, Rasouli F, Bazihizina N, Zhang H, Hedrich R, Shabala S* (2019) A large-scale screening of quinoa accessions reveals an important role of epidermal bladder cells and stomatal patterning in salinity tolerance. Environ Exp Bot 168:103885.
  • Rasouli F#, Kiani-Pouya A, Li L, Zhang H, Chen Z, Hedrich R, Wilson R*, Shabala S* (2020) Sugar Beet (Beta vulgaris) Guard Cells Responses to Salinity Stress: A Proteomic Analysis. Int J Mol Sci 21(7):2331.
  • Kiani-Pouya A#, Li L#, Rasouli F, Zhang Z, Chen J, Yu M, Tahir A, Hedrich R, Shabala S*, Zhang H* (2022) Transcriptome analyses of quinoa leaves revealed critical function of epidermal bladder cells in salt stress acclimation. Plant Stress 3:10061.

3. Protein acetylation mediated stress signaling

Acetylation occurs on the lysine residues, serine/threonine residues, and/or the N-terminus of proteins. Protein acetylation and deacetylation require important energy metabolites such as acetyl-coenzyme A (acetyl-CoA) and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) as cofactors. It has been proposed that fluctuations in the (sub)cellular level of acetyl-CoA or NAD could affect protein acetylation levels. Working under this general hypothesis, we study how abiotic stresses affect (sub)cellular acetyl-CoA and NAD levels, and consequently protein acetylation levels, which eventually affect plant growth.

Related publication(s):

  • Zhang H#*, Zhao Y, Zhu JK* (2020) Thriving under stress: how plants balance growth and the stress response. Dev Cell 55:529-543.
  • Guo J#, Chai X, Mei Y, Du J, Du H, Shi H, Zhu JK, Zhang H* (2022) Acetylproteomics analyses reveal critical features of lysine-ε-acetylation in Arabidopsis and a role of 14-3-3 protein acetylation in alkaline response. Stress Biology 2:1.

4. Translational regulation in early heat stress response

Translation is one of the most energy-consuming processes in the cell and therefore needs to be tightly regulated under stress. In both animal and plant cells, translationally stalled messenger ribonucleoproteins (mRNPs) form stress granules (SGs) within minutes of heat stress treatment. We study SG-related signaling events that occur during the first 30 minutes of heat stress response. Understanding these molecular events can help reduce heat-induced crop losses, which are becoming more frequent in the context of global warming.

Related publication(s):

  • Zhu S#, Gu J#, Yao J, Li Y, Zhang Z, Xia W, Wang Z, Gui X, Li L, Li D, Zhang H*, Liu C*. Liquid-liquid phase separation of RBGD2/4 is required for heat stress resistance in Arabidopsis. Dev Cell 57:1-15.