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    Unlocking the genetic secrets of flower diversity

    A biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is hoping to unlock the genetic secrets of flowering plants — information that could be used to grow better crops.

    The researcher, Madelaine Bartlett, will study the development and evolution of grass flowers such as corn and wheat, according to a statement Tuesday from UMass Amherst.

    Bartlett said the goal of the project is to understand how the genetics of grass flowers influence their growth.

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    “Understanding this one process can help us understand how the evolution of development works, and how we might be able to breed better grass crops,” Bartlett said. “Without grass flowers we wouldn’t have any grass crops to eat — crops such as rice, corn, wheat, barley, and oats.”

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    Certain grass flowers, like wheat, barley, and rye, fertilize themselves, Bartlett said, which presents a challenge for breeders who typically control the fertilization of their crops.

    Bartlett’s research into the genes that determine how grass flowers grow could mean these grains will become easier to breed. As a result, breeders will be able to grow more crops in a wider range of environments.

    “As the climate changes, we can develop more and better crops that can survive in places they wouldn’t have been able to survive before,” she said.

    Bartlett received an $837,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for her research.

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    She plans to offer summer courses in basic molecular biology for high school students, young women in particular, as part of her research program. She’ll also teach undergraduate students in a lab-based class and involve graduate students in her research.

    The grant Bartlett received acknowledges educators who are “teacher-scholars,” simultaneously conducting exemplary research and teaching students. She said educating young girls is especially important to her because she hopes to see more women in STEM fields in the future.

    “Having girls think about themselves as scientists from an early age means they’ll enroll in STEM courses and stick around in STEM careers for a long time,” Bartlett said.

    Alyssa Meyers can be reached at alyssa.meyers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ameyers_.