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.”
Elliott discusses how plants adapt to changing natural conditions, and describes how his research uncovers the interaction between how climate influences and local scale influences combine to create the current landscape mosaic.
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.
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.
McClure shows us his greenhouse and demonstrates how to pollinate a plant.
Cone teaches first-level genetics to biology and biochemistry students. “It is a lot of fun to teach introductory genetics,” she says, her enthusiasm obvious. She also teaches a capstone genetics course called “Human Inherited Diseases,” which explores the underlying molecular basis of certain inherited diseases in humans. “I’m not a human geneticist,” Cone specifies, “but I’ve learned about human genetics by teaching that class.” In addition to her teaching and research, Cone has done several major outreach projects.
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.”
Of her typical day, Amy Replogle, a graduate student in the Division of Plant Sciences, responds: “When I am not in class, I am in the lab doing research.” Replogle focuses on plant microbiology and pathology with professor Melissa Mitchum in the Bond Life Sciences Center. Specifically, she is working on the interaction between the plant parasitic cyst nematode and its host plant the soybean. These plant cyst nematodes are microscopic round worms that live in the soil and feed off the roots of plants. When they feed, they cause damage to the roots so that they can no longer uptake the water and nutrients needed for proper development. When a high percentage of soybean cyst nematodes reside in the soil, they result in yield losses for the farmer, a huge problem for Missouri soybean farmers.
Replogle demonstrates some of the steps involved in her experiments—from hatching the eggs and germinating soybean seeds to examining the infected roots with an inverted microscope. Replogle describes the life cycle of the soybean cyst nematode, which begins with the adult female cyst, which contains hundreds of eggs, and which may lie in wait in the soil for thirty years. “That is just one of the reasons it is so hard to control,” she says. When hatched, the nematode seeks a root, enters it, and penetrates the cell walls, “spitting” secretion into the root to induce the breakdown of cell walls and the formation of a feeding site.
“This is where my research project comes in,” Replogle explains. “I am actually studying one of the particular proteins that the nematode secretes that enables it feed from the plant for the rest of its life.” Through this research, Replogle seeks to better understand this problem in order to propose better solutions.
“Googling” for visual phenotypes in plants to examine for mutations or disease.