“What does it mean to see an object?” Gavin King’s question at first seems philosophical. During last year’s Biophysics and Your Body summer program, King’s collaborators posed a task for a group of middle school students: determine the contents of a shoebox without opening it. The students were given some materials and left to their creative wills.
Solving intellectual puzzles is a rewarding activity for Bruce McClure, MU Professor of Biochemistry, as he seeks to unravel the mystery of plant mating. If McClure and his team of researchers can crack the code and understand how breeding barriers work within plants, they will be one step closer to their goal of “making the world better through agriculture.”
After thirty years of research focused mainly on exploring biochemical and genetic questions in the laboratory, William Folk, Professor of Biochemistry at MU, has been pushing himself outside of the comfort and controlled environment of the lab with his newest project. As co-investigator on this nascent initiative, Folk explains its significance for him in moral and political terms—that is, how the reign of South Africa’s apartheid government contributed to the rapid and devastating spread of HIV in Africa, the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic. In South Africa, where an estimated 5 million people are infected by the disease, Folk feels an obligation to do what he can to help remedy this devastating statistic. With this call in mind, Folk and Professor Quinton Johnson of the University of the Western Cape have orchestrated a large collaboration of over a dozen colleagues from universities in South Africa and the United States, generously funded by a $4.4 million grant from the National Institute of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Creating a virtual center, which they’ve named The International Center for Indigenous Phytotherapy Studies (TICIPS—pronounced “Tee-Sips”), the center seeks to understand traditional healing practices in South Africa in terms of their safety and usefulness in treating infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS and the conditions associated with them.
Interviewees tell about how they are working to further their disciplines with their contributions.
McClure always wanted to help the world through science, but plant genetics wasn’t part of his original grand plan. After college and a environmental biochemistry major, he took a position with a diet geneticist seeking to modify the nutritional value of maize. This job exposed McClure to genetic analysis and helped him realize that he could have an impact on the world through agriculture.
McClure aims to understand how species recognition functions in plants. He sees his work as an intellectual puzzle, and puts much effort into figuring out how these mating mechanisms work. If he can figure out how to remove the mating barrier between incompatible plants, then farmers will see an increase in healthy, productive plants.
The main challenge, says McClure, is keeping his plants healthy and happy. The sleeping bag he keeps in his office is evidence of the constant worry that accompanies his work. If somebody doesn’t show up to water the plants, he warns, “you come back and the greenhouse is toast, and in many cases the plants I’ve got are irreplaceable.”
The potato is an essential global food source and the world’s number one non-grain food commodity. However, this valuable food is vulnerable to pests and disease. McClure wants to figure out how to move disease-resistant genes from wild potatoes to cultivated ones. Such a cross would lead to increased crop productivity and immense benefits for farmers.
McClure says that choosing plants for his research requires much consideration. Originally, he studied the Nicotiana genus, relatives of tobacco, but when those plants proved too difficult for some experiments he started concentrating on tomato relatives. Currently, McClure has begun work on potatoes.
McClure shows us his greenhouse and demonstrates how to pollinate a plant.
Bruce McClure studies plant mating. Similarly to all sexually reproducing organisms, plants devise ways to identify appropriate mates. The penalty for choosing a partner who is either too closely related or too genetically different is unhealthy offspring. Sound familiar? The same rules apply to human reproduction, with one major difference—plants can’t move around or talk. McClure and his fellow researchers approach plant mating with a scientific lens and study the type of communication that takes place within these organisms.
Currently, McClure is teaching in MU’s medical school. Before that, his undergraduate courses incorporated his plant research. “That is why it’s worthwhile for students to come to a research university,” says McClure. “Like the students, I am struggling to learn things that I don’t know. I can empathize with how hard it is to learn things, and I can share strategies to learn.”
Because plants can’t move around to find suitable mates, they depend on other forces, such as birds, bees, and wind, to bring them pollen. They can make themselves attractive to one kind of animal versus another, but they don’t have control over whose pollen is transferred to them. McClure is trying to understand how plants are able to screen all the pollen that comes to them and then identify the best choice.
“I don’t know exactly why I got interested in biology,” recounts Cone. “I was interested in medicine, so I started college thinking that I would be a medical doctor… But pretty soon I realized that wasn’t the kind of work that I wanted to do. So I started leaning more towards research.” Because of her own experience, Cone advises students accordingly: “You can turn out okay even if you don’t know what you want to do right now. So you just have to look for opportunities and keep your eyes open. Listen to what people are telling you, and to what sounds cool, and believe that nothing is impossible. In science it is common to totally change fields, to do your Ph.D. in one thing and eventually end up working on some other topic. Getting a Ph.D., after all, is about learning to be a critical independent thinker.”
Severin Stevenson introduces a subfield of biochemistry called quantitative proteomics. Proteomics deals with absolute quantification of proteins at any given time in a given sample compared with other protein samples. Because certain plants produce seeds that are valuable for their oil (e.g., cottonseed, peanuts, grape seed), scientists are interested in the plant’s physiology, specifically, its process of “seed-filling”—a period of development during which the seed produces oil. If scientists can understand the processes that contribute to the seed’s production of oil, they may be able to increase this production for economic gain.
Stevenson has been working with Jay J. Thelen’s Proteomics of Oilseeds Lab in the Bond Life Sciences Center. A typical experiment for Stevenson may involve adding fatty acids to cells growing in a sucrose suspension, taking a sample every hour over a period of days, extracting and treating protein from these samples and, finally, re-suspending the protein and then injecting samples into the mass spectrometer in order to quantify and analyze the chemical composition of the protein samples.
Stevenson and his team are working to elucidate the mechanism behind oil accumulation in seeds during seed filling. Plants sense the levels of various metabolites differently in different tissues, and seeds are unique in the ways in which they do this. Some seeds are well over 40% oil by dry weight, whereas leaves are under 5%. The differences in oil accumulation between these tissues provide evidence for the presence of a unique regulatory mechanism that they wish to understand and which may eventually benefit agricultural industries.
It is fascinating to hear about how these graduate students were drawn to their chosen area of study. While in some cases, their graduate program was a logical next step, for other students there is the sense that serendipity played a bigger role. In all cases, however, the sense of “something just clicking” becomes evident. Once they chose an area in which to specialize, that is, other aspects of their research and study just seem to fall into place.
William Donald Thomas, for example, recalls his college days: “I was an art major and then an English major, but I couldn’t see myself doing that for the rest of my life.…I looked at what I liked most, and that was biology. I wasn’t always interested in exactly what I’m doing now. I sort of fell into it. I like the simplicity in the system we are using; that is probably what attracted me to it.”
Similarly, Erica Racen admits that she did not begin in the basic sciences. As an undergraduate student, however, she did research in the area of cardio-thoracic surgery. “I was excited about science and research, and after graduating, I decided to get my Ph.D.” While doing rotations in different labs, she states: “When I tried out Karen Bennett’s laboratory, I found that it was the right fit for me. I liked the research, and as I have slowly learned more about it, it has kind of become my own.”
Brian Bostick recounts that he enjoyed science and medicine in high school, saying, “I always thought I would be a doctor.” While taking classes to prepare for medical school, he was exposed to the research aspect of academia. “I got really interested in how the stuff in the textbooks got there. I wanted to become one of the people who discovers those things.” After doing a rotation in Dongsheng Duan’s laboratory, says Bostick, “I think that’s when it all clicked. It was really exciting. Duan is really energetic and believes in the work he is doing. He is always thinking back to the actual patients. I think that is what really got me interested in research, but also in combining research with the clinical side.”
“Growing up, I was fascinated by nature and plants,” tells Amy Replogle. Intending to pursue plant biology in college, an internship at The Ohio State University in plant pathology triggered greater interest. Afterward, Replogle came to MU for an internship with Melissa Mitchum, who later became her advisor.
“I’ve always liked plants,” says Severin Stevenson about his own path to graduate school. Not only are plants relatively easy to study and hold multiple opportunities for studying, but they are also a good starting model. “Biochemistry is biochemistry,” suggests Stevenson. “No matter what system you are working on, you can apply it to other systems as well.”
When asked, each individual reveals ideas about their post-graduation plans. When he graduates, for example, William Donald Thomas plans to continue the same type of research in molecular biology, in search of better treatments for breast cancer. Brian Bostick is a MD/Ph.D. student, earning a medical degree alongside a Ph.D. He explains: “My hope is to combine both clinical work as an MD, working with patients, but also to keep a research career going.” As such, Bostick intends to keep developing treatments for heart disease and “try to transfer those breakthroughs we are having in the laboratory to the bedside and help human patients.” Regarding his own ideal plans following graduation, Severin Stevenson says he would like to work in private industry for a while, but hopes that after some years of this he will return to teaching.
“There’s actually a lot you can do with a Ph.D.,” says Erica Racen. “Traditionally, people think that you go into academia and have your own lab. But I have a passion for teaching. Having come from a small liberal arts college, I would like to go back to that environment and teach.” Amy Replogle similarly reports a passion for teaching, saying, “I would love to become a professor at a small institution.”
While Andrew Cox is not certain what direction to take after graduation, he knows that he loves doing research. “I am less thrilled with the grant writing, the constant rejection, and the cut-throat nature of academia,” he responds. If he had to guess, Cox suspects that he will eventually teach: “I love interacting with students. There is really not much more thrilling than getting someone interested, involved, and engaged in research.”
The answer to why Sub-Saharan Africa is known is the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic is complex. But Folk states that while “we don’t know all the answers, in part the apartheid government worked to destroy the traditional culture and society of South Africa,” which clearly exacerbated the problem.
In its second year, TICIPS has three out of four projects underway. The highest priority is a human clinical trial that will take place in a hospital outside of Durbin, South Africa.
Some of the challenges of this project have included building trust with traditional healers, but the American team members have benefited from the deep trust that has developed between the South African colleagues and traditional healers. Folk’s team has budgeted for compensation, preferred in the form of cattle, for traditional healers.
Twenty million people have been infected with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the availability of drugs and health care is far below what is needed to stop the pandemic. Responding to this problem, scientists from MU and the University of the Western Cape have joined forces. Their relationship is built on trust and about 400 visits back and forth over the past two decades.
Studying traditional healing practices in South Africa in terms of their usefulness in improving human health and treating certain diseases.
The team has completed phase one of the project, which involved establishing the administrative structure for TICIPS and conducting a small-scale clinical trial of the safety of the South African plant Sutherlandia in healthy adults. The next step will involve trying to find scientific evidence about the plant’s safety.
William Folk and Quinton Johnson (of the University of the Western Cape) have orchestrated a large collaboration of over a dozen colleagues from universities in South Africa and the United States to create a virtual center that seeks to understand traditional healing practices in South Africa.
The outcomes of this study will define a process by which these plants can be studied and evaluated. Folk hopes that others will be able to carry on with similar studies to begin to learn and inform the public about these plants.