Forest at your fingertips: smartphones enhance fieldwork

Forest at your fingertips: smartphones enhance fieldwork
An MU student uses his cell phone while in Costa Rica. | Photo by Jack Schultz, Bond LSC

An MU student uses his cell phone while in Costa Rica. | Photo by Jack Schultz, Bond LSC

By Jack Schultz | Director of MU Bond Life Sciences Center

“Fieldwork” means many things to researchers, but in the past it often meant working without easy access to communication.

Now cell phones allow my students visiting the La Selva Biological Station in the lowland rainforest of Costa Rica to remain connected.

While our science and journalism majors learn to report on biological research, I find that I can be replaced. As an experienced biologist who has taught and worked in the Costa Rican tropics for some time, I normally serve as a biology resource. After all, our journalism students have little or no science background.

Yet, as students interview scientists working in a rainforest, learn about the forest’s biology and write about it daily, they now can go online to find the answer. Everything from ecological theory to species lists for our forest site are accessible to any student with a WiFi connection. Fortunately, the biological station has good WiFi service.

While I need to prompt searches to help students know what to look for, the answer to “what was that animal?” is just a hyperlink away. I’m carrying a bulky field guide to the birds, but most often find myself online, checking my own recollection of animals, plants, and facts and figures.

Students return from the forest with evidence of what they’ve seen, which is much better than a hand-waving verbal description. Group meals are eaten with one hand on the phone and the other on a fork. The day’s plans can be refined at breakfast by checking the weather forecast for our rainforest site.

Any good journalist acquires as much background as possible before an interview. Our students can do that in short order by visiting websites of the people we meet in the field. Over several days, they can refine their knowledge and questions to get the most from conversations with researchers. When a term or concept arises in interviews, clarification is right there on the phone.

Cell phone use goes well beyond fact checking.

Paper maps melt in the rain, but the students took photos of the maps we were given and use their cell phones to find their way on the forest trails. Many actually take notes on their phones, and some compose essays there. The improving quality of cell phone cameras produces excellent pictures to post with blogs and articles. Some of the students are producing photos that rival the quality of photos I take with my bulky DSLR. And the videos they produce are high quality and easy to edit.

While computers and tablets are the instruments of choice for uploading larger essays, cool observations can go direct from a cell phone to Twitter, Instagram or even Facebook. And posting to personal Facebook pages keep family and friends updated on each day’s adventures. Everyone in our group is in close contact with home, even if home is in Saudi Arabia (in one case).

While I will admit to feeling, at first, that cell phones could ruin the fieldwork experience, my perspective has changed to value it as a professional tool and not just a personal toy.

Now I’ll be in line for a cell phone upgrade when I return home.

The Curious Case of Inflammation: One Lab’s Mission to Put the Pieces Together

White coat, dark room. Jean Camden, a senior technician in the Weisman lab, reviews salivary gland and brain tissue samples for research on inflammation. | Photo by Paige Blankenbuehler, Bond LSC

White coat, dark room. Jean Camden, a senior technician in the Weisman lab, reviews salivary gland and brain tissue samples for research on inflammation. | Photo by Paige Blankenbuehler, Bond LSC

By Paige Blankenbuehler | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

There’s a criminal on the loose, striking every day. Millions fall victim, but there’s still no way to stop it. And, in all likelihood, you have been hurt by it.

If inflammation is an unsolved criminal case of the last three decades, then Gary Weisman has been the detective. He’s certain there’s an accomplice — perhaps many — that may be triggering the discomfort.

The Bond Life Sciences Center investigator is slowly revealing what makes inflammation tick and what makes it strike. Each epiphany brings another question. He’s certain there’s a way to prevent negative effects of unsolved inflammation.

Bond LSC investigator and MU professor of biochemistry, has been studying the ins-and-outs of inflammation for the last 30 years. | Photo by Paige Blankenbuehler, Bond LSC

Bond LSC investigator and MU professor of biochemistry, has been studying the ins-and-outs of inflammation for the last 30 years. | Photo by Paige Blankenbuehler, Bond LSC

Weisman has dedicated his career to understanding the micro-processes behind inflammation. He’s become so specialized that his techniques can be as hard to crack as the case itself.

“I would not ask anyone to explain what I do,” Weisman says. Nonetheless, he’s been able to divide the process of inflammation into two categories: components that repair the body and components that lead to its destruction. This will help find inflammation’s many accomplices to figure out why humans work, and what their bodies do when they don’t work so well.

“I am interested in the meaning of life,” Weisman says. “Life has become simpler for me because the scientific method carries everywhere. I’ve become aware of how simple we are as a machine.”

 

Criminal or just misunderstood?

Most criminals adopt patterns, but inflammation stands as a signpost for mysterious, underlying problems.

Its effects are usually localized: an arm, a joint, the brain or a gland. You feel a temperature spike then the skin reddens in a part of your body. Later still, the skin tightens and pain comes at a snail’s pace.

Not even cells are safe. Inflammation even strikes on the molecular level.

But really, inflammation can be a good thing. It’s part of the immune system’s bag of tricks to signal the body to bring in reinforcements to fight off the invasion. Normally, inflammation corrects a physical problem, but if it is not successful in repairing a problem, inflammation can become chronic and accelerate tissue destruction.

Just like in an episode of CSI, Weisman puts the pieces of the inflammation puzzle together in his office by applying the expertise of Laurie Erb, Jean Camden and Lucas Woods — all donned in white lab coats, eyes pressed to the microscope examining evidence and building molecular evidence in the case.

The MU associate professor of biochemistry and his team have become a sort of grant-wielding wizards to sustain his pursuit of inflammation triggers. National Institutes of Health grant awards have sustained his lab for decades. The funding has come from varied sources such as the MU Food for the 21st Century Program, the Bond LSC, the Bright Focus Foundation, the American Heart Association and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. In recent years, research funding for Alzheimer’s disease and Sjogren’s syndrome (a disease of the salivary gland that causes dryness) have contributed, too.

But the funding source doesn’t matter because inflammation is the tie that binds.

Jean Camden processes samples under the Weisman lab's microscope. | Photo by Paige Blankenbuehler, Bond LSC

Jean Camden processes samples under the Weisman lab’s microscope. | Photo by Paige Blankenbuehler, Bond LSC

Advancements, like recent mapping of the human genome, have moved his work forward to understand inflammation’s complexity. Each experiment he completes fills in another blank slate in the “human owner’s manual.”

“As humans, we’re so intent on the fact that we’re superior to all, but really we’re not,” Weisman says. “With the Human Genome project, we’ve come to understand that all living things have similar designs … we are on the verge of finding revolutionary solutions to preventing or reversing human diseases.”

 

A receptor all our own

One specific player in the body’s immune system has kept Weisman’s attention for most of his career. The P2Y2 protein is a nucleotide receptor, and his lab team members affectionately refer to it as “our receptor.”

Nucleotide receptors are regulatory molecules in red blood cells. What they regulate is nuanced, mostly undetermined and of great interest to scientists. Answering that question has become Weisman’s wheelhouse.

The body manufactures 15 different types of nucleotide receptors, all similar in construction, but each are believed to have subtly different functional roles. It’s as if Weisman and his lab is on the case of a highly organized crime ring.

“Our receptor is mainly present when inflammation occurs, and we’re trying to figure out its role in a variety of diseases,” Weisman says.

The P2Y2 receptor has been observed in Alzheimer’s patients, along with a plaque build-up in the brain, and the receptor was suspected of playing a role in the disease’s progression.

Weisman and his colleagues found that the deletion of the P2Y2 receptor in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease accelerates progression of plaque build-up, neurological symptoms and death. This suggests that the receptor has anti-inflammatory effects rather than being “guilty by association” with the tissue-destructive aspects of inflammation.

“It’s like I have this 30,000-piece jigsaw puzzle in front of me that I have to put together,” Weisman says. “What’s the difference between you and me? As a machine, surprisingly very little.”

This simplicity drives Weisman to continue solving the mysteries of inflammation and search for its underlying chemical processes. By understanding the body’s chemical reactions, he believes treatments can be developed to focus the immune system on repairing damaged tissues.

Through studying his receptor, Weisman is breaking up inflammation’s crime ring.

Unlocking plants’ metabolic thermostat — award-winning LSW posters

Unlocking plants’ metabolic thermostat — award-winning LSW posters

Matthew Salie would like to see chubbier plants.

“You’ve probably never really seen a fat plant before, right?” said Salie, a fourth year MU graduate student in biochemistry­. “Humans, we make plenty of extra fat and store that as energy. But plants don’t really need to do that — they make just as much as they need, and that’s about it.”

Salie studies plant metabolism with Bond LSC researcher Jay Thelen, an associate professor of biochemistry. He’s one of 25 winners honored for research presented during Missouri Life Sciences Week 2015.

The Thelen lab looks for ways to increase the amount of vegetable oil that crops such as corn and soybean can produce. Salie focused on an enzyme that is the first step in the pathway to producing fatty acid in plants.

The idea was that if he could reduce metabolic limits at the beginning of the process, then the downstream production of oil would increase.

“I found these new proteins that no one has ever really studied before,” Salie said. “As I started to look into them over the last year or two, it turns out that they actually seem to incorporate themselves into the enzyme and slow down it’s activity.”

Four separate proteins normally combine to form the functional enzyme, but the new proteins Salie identified mimic those components and can take their place, like a cuckoo bird replacing another species’ eggs with its own. The more mimics that replace proteins, the fewer functional enzymes the plant produces, which means less oil.

It’s a simple, nuanced way for the plant to fine-tune the production of fatty acids.

“Instead of being an on-off switch, it’s more like a thermostat,” Salie said. And if he can adjust that thermostat in a plant, it should start packing on the pounds.

Although Salies work was only recently submitted for publication, it’s already receiving recognition. His poster, “The BADC proteins — a novel paradigm for regulation of de novo fatty acid synthesis in plants,” won first place in the Molecular and Cellular Biology category during the Life Sciences Week poster competition in April.

Salie relished the opportunity to share his findings with researchers and non-scientists alike.

“It’s a great experience, because it helps you realize what’s really important about the work that your doing,” he said. “It also really encourages you to work harder. It’s like, ‘Wow, this is actually meaningful stuff!’ which can be hard to see when you’re working 60 or 70 hour weeks at the lab, just sitting there by yourself.”

Salie was among more than 300 students who presented their research during the 31st annual Life Sciences Week poster sessions.

 

The winners in each of the five categories are:

  • Molecular and Cellular Biology
    • Matthew Salie, Matthew Muller, Stephanie Bowers
  • Organismal Biology
    • Miqdad Dhariwala, Ryan Sheldon, Carine Collins
  • Genetics, Evolution and Environment
    • Julianna Jenkins, Nathan Harness, and a tie for third between Sharon Kuo and Susheel Bhanu Busi
  • Life Science and Biomedical Engineering Technologies and Informatics
    • Jamie Hibbard, Hang Xu, Brittany Hagenhoff
  • Social and Behavioral Sciences
    • Vaness Cox and Ian George tied for first place

Undergraduate winners are Vincent Farinella, James Mrkvicka, Anette van Swaay, Romanus Hutchins, Dallas Pineda, Kelsey Boschert, Anthony Onuzuruike, Clare Diester, Adam Kidwell and Sean Rogers.

Honorable mention:

  • Social and Behavioral Sciences
    • Undergrad Honorable Mention – Kelsey Clark
    • Undergrad Honorable Mention – Louie Markovits
  • Genetics, Evolution, and Environment
    • Grad Honorable Mentions: Megan Murphy (Schul) and Amanda Smolinsky (Holliday)
    • Undergrad Honorable mention: Anthony Spates (Holliday)
  • Organismal Biology
    • Grad Honorable Mention: Kathleen Pennington
    • Grad Honorable Mention: Kasun Kodippili
    • Grad Honorable Mention: Christopher Tracy
    • Undergrad Honorable mention: Chelsie Todd
    • Undergrad Honorable mention: Holly Doerr
    • Undergrad Honorable mention: Zeina Zeida
  • Molecular and Cellular Biology
    • Grad Honorable mention, Khalid Alam [Burke lab]
    • Grad Honorable mention, Zhe Li [Sarafianos lab]
    • Undergrad Honorable mention: Vincent Markovitz [Guo lab]

Additional prizes were awarded for communication prowess and poster design chops.

For photos of some of this year’s winner, check out this Flickr album

BPA overrides temperature to decide turtle sex

The environmental build-up of bisphenol A (BPA) can result in a life-changing shift for aquatic animals.

For painted turtles, exposure to this chemical can disrupt sexual differentiation,, according to new research in the  General and Comparative Endocrinology.

Scientists at the University of Missouri have teamed up to show how low levels of certain endocrine disruptors like BPA can cause males to possess female gonadal structures in newly-hatched turtles. This collaboration between MU, Westminster College, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Saint Louis Zoo exposed turtle eggs to levels of BPA similar to those currently found in the environment.

“It’s important because this is one of the first times we’ve seen low doses of BPA causing disorganization or reorganization of the male gonad to resemble females,” said Dawn Holliday, adjunct assistant professor of pathology & anatomical sciences at MU’s School of Medicine and assistant professor of biology at Westminster College. “We’re not sure what this means in terms of population-level effects, but certainly it can cause some reproductive dysfunction for turtles.”

Painted turtle eggs were brought from a hatchery in Louisiana, candled to ensure embryo viability and then incubated at male-permissive temperatures in a bed of vermiculite. Those exposed to BPA developed deformities to testes that held female characteristics.  Photo by Roger Meissen | © 2015 - MU Bond Life Sciences Center

Painted turtle eggs were brought from a hatchery in Louisiana, candled to ensure embryo viability and then incubated at male-permissive temperatures in a bed of vermiculite. Those exposed to BPA developed deformities to testes that held female characteristics.
Photo by Roger Meissen | © 2015 – MU Bond Life Sciences Center

Endocrine disruptors leach into rivers and streams and concern scientists because of potential effects on animals and humans. While BPA is used as a hardening agent in plastics, it also is used to line cans and in manufacturing where more than 15 billion tons are produced each year.

In the case of painted turtles, these chemicals have potential to alter sex ratios, which are normally regulated by temperature during incubation. Eggs exposed to cooler temperatures normally produce males and those hatched at warmer temperatures produce females.

Turtle eggs incubated at cooler temperatures result in male hatchlings while warmer temperatures cause females. Researchers are measuring the temperature and weight of this turtle. Photo by Roger Meissen | © 2015 - MU Bond Life Sciences Center

Turtle eggs incubated at cooler temperatures result in male hatchlings while warmer temperatures cause females. Researchers are measuring the temperature and weight of this turtle. Photo by Roger Meissen | © 2015 – MU Bond Life Sciences Center

In this experiment, turtle eggs were incubated at temperatures known to rear males and dosed with low, medium and high levels of BPA. BPA-exposed turtles were compared to hatchlings not exposed to chemicals as well as a group exposed to high levels of ethinyl estradiol — an endocrine disruptor found in birth control — at the USGS Columbia Environmental Research Center.

These doses resulted in turtle sex organs that should have been male , but abnormally contained female gonadal elements. The low dose represented BPA concentrations found in fields where turtles can nest while the mid and high doses approximate BPA levels near contaminated sites like landfills.

“We exposed the eggs for a limited amount of time right when they were most vulnerable to the effects,” said Cheryl Rosenfeld, a researcher at MU’s Bond Life Sciences Center and an associate professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine. “We found that we got partial feminization in more than 30 percent of turtle eggs exposed to BPA despite being incubated at male-permissive temperatures.”

Dawn Holliday (left), Caitlin Jandegian and Cheryl Rosenfeld examine turtle gonadal tissue to determine if BPA affected proper sexual development. Photo by Roger Meissen | © 2015 - MU Bond Life Sciences Center

Dawn Holliday (left), Caitlin Jandegian and Cheryl Rosenfeld examine turtle gonadal tissue to determine if BPA affected proper sexual development. Photo by Roger Meissen | © 2015 – MU Bond Life Sciences Center

These results give the team a look into what real-world exposure levels might mean in the wild and a starting point for comparison.

“Turtles are the most endangered vertebrate taxa and they have all sorts of conservation issues coming at them from people harvesting them to disease, and endocrine disruptors are another potentially big whammy they have against their conservation status,” said Sharon Deem, director of the Saint Louis Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Medicine. “This research is a stepping stone, and we are hoping we can apply these results to populations of turtles throughout the state and use these results as a marker to look at endocrine disruptors in the wild.”

Future studies plan to look at the underlying mechanisms behind sexual disruption and will extend the study to animals including fish and mammals. Rosenfeld’s laboratory is in the process of examining how early exposure of turtles to endocrine disruptors might affect cognitive behaviors, including spatial navigation ability.

Fred vom Saal, Curators Professor of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science at MU, Don Tillitt, an adjunct professor of biological sciences at MU and a research toxicologist with the USGS, Ramji Bhandari, an assistant research professor of biological sciences and a visiting scientist with the USGS at MU and Caitlin Jandegian, a senior research technician at MU, all collaborated on the study.

Candling helps determine whether the painted turtle embryo is viable for the experiment. Photo by Roger Meissen | © 2015 - MU Bond Life Sciences Center

Candling helps determine whether the painted turtle embryo is viable for the experiment. Photo by Roger Meissen | © 2015 – MU Bond Life Sciences Center

Funding was provided by Mizzou Advantage, an MU initiative that fosters interdisciplinary collaboration among faculty, staff, students and external partners to solve real-world problems in four areas of strength identified at the University of Missouri. These areas include Food for the Future, Sustainable Energy, Media for the Future and One Health/One Medicine.

Five Bond LSC undergraduates win Arts and Sciences Scholarships

Five undergraduate researchers at Bond LSC were awarded arts and sciences scholarships to help them continue their education. Congratulations to each of the winners.

Hannah Baldwin/Bond LSC MU undergraduate Wade Dismukes gathers plants from a growing room in Bond LSC to prepare for an experiment about plant evolution on Thursday, April 9, 2015. Dismukes, who won an arts and sciences scholarship, is a researcher in Dr. Chris Pires’ lab. He is a double major in biology and math.

Hannah Baldwin/Bond LSC
MU undergraduate Wade Dismukes gathers plants from a growing room in Bond LSC to prepare for an experiment about plant evolution on Thursday, April 9, 2015. Dismukes, who won an arts and sciences scholarship, is a researcher in Dr. Chris Pires’ lab. “I got into science because I had good mentors,” he said.

Wade Dismukes started his career as an undergraduate researcher at Bond LSC in Dr. Jack Schultz’s lab almost four years ago. He started out studying how plants, specifically grape vines, reacted to being eaten by insects, specifically phylloxera. About two years ago, he joined Dr. Chris Pires’ lab in order to learn to read a transcriptome, which is a way of looking at all the genes an organism expresses, Dismukes said. A senior with one year of school left, Dismukes is double majoring in math and biology. He plans to go to graduate school and eventually become a research scientist. He’ll stick to plant science, he said. Dismukes credits his interest in science to good mentors.

Hannah Baldwin/Bond LSC MU junior Nathan Coffey works in Dr. Dawn Cornelison's lab on an experiment involving muscle tissue on Thursday, April 9, 2015. Coffey, a winner of an arts and sciences scholarship, said his research focuses on how different types of muscle work within the body. He said that he hopes to complete an MDPhD one day so he can be a researcher and physician. This summer, he will intern at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in Bethesda, Md.​

Hannah Baldwin/Bond LSC
MU junior Nathan Coffey works in Dr. Dawn Cornelison’s lab on an experiment involving muscle tissue on Thursday, April 9, 2015. Coffey, a winner of an arts and sciences scholarship, said his research focuses on how different types of muscle work within the body. He said that he hopes to complete an MDPhD one day so he can be a researcher and physician. This summer, he will intern at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in Bethesda, Md.​

MU junior Nathan Coffey thought he would study physical therapy. Then, he tore his ACL playing soccer. He became interested in medicine and switched majors to biological sciences. He has been an undergraduate researcher in Dr. D. Cornelison’s lab since his sophomore year. This summer, he will intern at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Md., where he will work on a research project. Currently, he researchers how different types of muscle work within the human body. Coffey says he would like to pursue an MDPhD so he can become a research physician once he finishes his bachelor’s degree.

Hannah Baldwin/Bond LSC MU junior Kevin Bird inspects plants in a greenhouse on Monday, Feb. 23, 2015. Bird, who won an arts and science scholarship, is a student in Dr. Chris Pires' lab studying how plants express genes.

Hannah Baldwin/Bond LSC
MU junior Kevin Bird inspects plants in a greenhouse on Monday, Feb. 23, 2015. Bird, who won an arts and science scholarship, is a student in Dr. Chris Pires’ lab studying how plants express genes.

MU junior Kevin Bird said a heart defect he was born with made him interested in genetics from a young age. Now, the biology and philosophy major works in Dr. Chris Pires’ lab to understand the genetics behind why Brassica rapa — a species that include napa cabbage, mizuna, turnips, bok choy and field mustard — is nutritious. He uses genomics and quantitative genetics to conduct his research. Bird said he wants to continue to study plant genetics in a doctoral program and eventually become a professor so he can teach and research plant molecular evolution and systems biology.

Courtesy of Morgan Seibert MU sophomore Morgan Seibert is a researcher in Dr. D. Cornelison's lab at Bond LSC. She is a winner of an arts and sciences scholarship.

Courtesy of Morgan Seibert
MU sophomore Morgan Seibert is a researcher in Dr. D. Cornelison’s lab at Bond LSC. She is a winner of an arts and sciences scholarship.

Morgan Seibert has been interested in science since she was kid, farming with her father. The Mu sophomore currently studies rhabdomyosarcoma, the type of skeletal muscle cancer that  occurs most often in children, alongside Dr. D. Cornelison and a graduate student. Seibert plans to continue researching independently throughout the summer and fall. Her research in the coming months will focus on the role of receptors known as Ephs and ephrins in the nuclei of cancer cells. The research may lead to new treatments for cancer. Seibert said she hopes to either go to medical school or continue her research in graduate school.

###

MU undergraduate Badr Almadi, a researcher in Dr. Anand Chandrasekhar’s lab could not be reached for an interview or photograph. He is also a winner of an arts and sciences scholarship.

Life Sciences Week preview: Doing more with less

Gehrke 2015 flyerA simple virtue lies at the heart of Xuemin (Sam) Wang’s research: thrift.

“A good way to think of it is how to increase output without demanding more inputs,” Wang said.

Wang, the E. Desmond Lee and Family Fund endowed professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a principal investigator at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, studies plant membrane lipids. His lab is focused on understanding the relationship between oil production and plant stresses such as drought and nutrient deficiency.

Wang will speak during the 31st annual Missouri Life Sciences Week, a yearly celebration of MU’s research and an exploration of public policy, entrepreneurship and science outreach.

Wang’s lab uses Arabidopsis, the lab mouse of the plant world, as a discovery tool but also works with crops such as soybean and the Camelina species. Camelina was widely grown in Europe before it was supplanted by canola, but Wang and others are working to develop Camelina as a productive oil crop.

The lab studies how lipids — the fatty acids that make up cell membranes — help regulate cell function. For example, they’re trying to figure out how a cell senses water and nutrients and then “determines whether it should grow faster or store more lipid or carbohydrates,” Wang said.

By understanding those processes, future research might develop plants that do more with less. That could mean less water and chemical fertilizer needed for the same or greater yield. Wang pointed to reliance on fertilizers as a major problem.

“Not only does it drive up agriculture production costs, but there can be major environmental consequences.”

Ultimately, Wang’s research could improve plant oil and biomass production while decreasing our dependence on fertilizers and abundant water.

Wang’s presentation on “Lipids as Molecular Switches in plant stress signaling and metabolic integration” constitutes this year’s Charles W. Gehrke distinguished lecture. Gehrke, a MU professor of Biochemistry who died in 2009, was instrumental in advancing the field of chromatography and helped analyze rock samples retrieved from the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Gehrke grew up in poverty during the great depression and worked in melon fields during his youth before studying at Ohio State University.

Missouri Life Sciences Week is an annual event. In addition to Wang’s talk, this year’s line-up will also focus on HIV and emerging diseases and highlight more than 300 undergraduate and graduate research projects at its poster sessions.

Check out the full schedule of events here.

Scientists dig into the epigenetics of cancer

Joya Chandra, associate professor of pediatrics at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, explains the epigenetics of pediatric cancers at the 2015 MU LSSP Symposium on epigenetics on Sunday, March 15.//photo by Caleb O'Brien/Bond LSC

Joya Chandra, associate professor of pediatrics at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, explains the epigenetics of pediatric cancers at the 2015 MU LSSP Symposium on epigenetics on Sunday, March 15.//photo by Caleb O’Brien/Bond LSC

The evolving science of epigenetics is shaking up how scientists and doctors think about cancer.

At the 11th annual University of Missouri Life Sciences & Society Program symposium, scientists, historians and philosophers explored the epigenetic theme. On its final day, two researchers spoke about how cancer and epigenetics intersect.

Epigenetics involves changes to how genes work that do not occur within DNA. Epigenetic changes can, in effect, turn genes on or off, and those changes can then be passed from generation to generation. Because cancer involves cells that grow uncontrollably, don’t die and can travel throughout the body, it makes sense to look for epigenetic changes that could account for cancer’s unusual attributes.

Shuk-mei Ho, director of the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center and Chair of the Department of Environmental Health, discussed the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) hypothesis, which suggests that problems early in development or during other key periods such as puberty and pregnancy can have wide-ranging implications later in life.

She centered on whether early exposure to a high fat diet and endocrine disruptors such as bisphenol A can affect an offspring’s risk of developing certain types of cancer.

“These studies are really important because they help us identify some early warning signs that may be related to epigenetics,” she said “They allow us to devise measures that we can use to interfere with and prevent development of cancer.”

A proactive approach to cancer could harness science’s newfound understanding of epigenetics and target cancers before they start.

“It is much more effective to have prevention rather than have the cancer and devise ways to treat it,” she said. “This will minimize a lot of suffering and also reduce the cost of the health care.”

Prevention is especially important because epigenetic effects can arise quickly and persist for multiple generations. For example, breast cancer rates in immigrant populations can increase within one generation of arrival. In mice, scientists have detected the lingering effects of a high fat diet after three generations.

Epigenetics and childhood cancer

Pediatric oncology is especially apt for integration with epigenetics.

Joya Chandra, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, studies therapies for childhood cancers. She said developments in epigenetics have helped researchers better understand childhood cancers and the ways they differ from adult cancers.

“The field of epigenetics has just exploded in terms of giving us insight into how pediatric cancers are different from adult cancers.” Chandra said. “Just in the past 2-3 years we’ve learned a lot about cancers that are present in adults and children that have really different epigenetic profiles. This presents an opportunity for pediatric cancer oncologists to treat these cancers differently, and increasing knowledge about epigenetics will help serve that goal.”

leukemia, for example, is the most common pediatric cancer but only the sixth most common among adults. And about 70 percent of infants with leukemia exhibit epigenetic changes associated with their cancer.

Children with glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer, exhibit epigenetic traces that are distinct from the same kind of cancer in adults.

A deeper understanding of epigenetics and of how cancer in children differs from adult cancer could allow for the development of new medicines, novel therapies and powerful strategies for proactively protecting patients from certain types of cancers.

 

Translating soybean cyst nematode research

Roger Meissen/Bond Life Sciences Center -  These soybean roots show some nematode cysts. The small, white circles are the hardened body of the nematodes and form when the nematode attaches itself to the root to create a feeding cell.

Roger Meissen/Bond Life Sciences Center – These soybean roots show some nematode cysts. The small, white circles are the hardened body of the nematodes and form when the nematode attaches itself to the root to create a feeding cell.

Beneath a North Carolina field in 1954, a tiny worm inched its way through the soil and butted against a soybean root. The worm pierced the plant, slipped inside and inserted a needle-like appendage into a cell. It pumped a mixture of proteins into the root cell and waited for the potent blend to take effect on the unsuspecting soybean.

Since the first detection of soybean cyst nematode (SCN) in the US, the worm Heterodera glycines has spread to about 80 percent of American soybean fields. In Missouri, SCN attacks soybeans in almost every county and causes decreased yields even in robust, healthy-looking fields. Nationwide, SCN wreaks havoc to the tune of $1.2 billion per year, making it by far the most costly soybean pest.

Despite the hefty toll, farmers still depend on the same small handful of resistant soybean varieties to combat SCN that they have used for years. But those natural defenses are becoming less effective as nematodes evolve.

“More than 90 percent of the soybean cultivars that farmers plant derive their resistance from a single source,” said Melissa Mitchum, a plant nematologist at the University of Missouri Bond Life Sciences Center and Division of Plant Sciences faculty member in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “Consequently, this has led to widespread virulence in the pathogen population, thereby reducing the effectiveness of those resistant cultivars.”

But in the past 10 years, researchers studying SCN have made numerous breakthroughs, unlocking the secrets of the nematode and exploring how the worm interacts with host plants. Now, scientists are poised to bring that knowledge from the laboratory to the field.

Found in translation

Relatively little was known about SCN a decade ago.

Scientists could determine the type of nematode in a soil sample and had just figured out the cocktail of proteins a nematode pumps into the soy root cell that transform it into a syncytium, or feeding cell.

Working in part with funding from commodity boards and farmer checkoff dollars, researchers around the country made breakthrough after breakthrough, deepening our understanding of SCN and equipping scientists with new tools to fight the pest.

That money helped scientists sequence the soybean genome, draft a SCN genome and pinpoint important soy and SCN genes.

Checkoff investments continued to pay dividends in 2012 when Mitchum and colleagues cloned the first gene linked to natural soybean cyst nematode resistance. This breakthrough is one key step in moving science from the laboratory into the field. With a SCN resistance gene in hand, new avenues for creating soybean varieties that fight off the nematode are opening up.

But other areas of research also hold promise in the struggle against soybean cyst nematode’s parasitic ways.

Mitchum’s group also identified the plant receptors that recognize and respond to the blend of proteins an attacking nematode inserts into a plant. In a recent project published in Plant Biotechnology Journal, Xiaoli Guo, a postdoctoral fellow in Mitchum’s lab demonstrated that silencing those receptors in soybean roots helped the plant resist SCN.

This work has implications for more crops than just soybeans: Working with collaborator Xiaohong Wang at Cornell, Mitchum’s group used their understanding of plant receptors to develop a potato resistant to potato cyst nematode.

A roadmap for discovery

To build on the momentum of recent research, experts drafted a roadmap for the next decade of nematode research. Their goal, Mitchum said, is to address the challenge of translating these research breakthroughs into something tangible for the farmer.

With support from state farmer run organizations such as the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council, the North Central Soybean Research Program and the United Soybean Board, researchers are formulating teams that “bring together commodity, industry and university funding to develop collaborative, interdisciplinary, multistate projects,” said Mitchum.

And there’s plenty of scientific firepower to advance research: MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources alone has more than 90 faculty studying plant science, plant genetics and other areas of agriculture-related science.

The scientists’ plan for the next 10 years involves a blend of molecular research, plant breeding, population biology and outreach. Researchers will focus on refining the existing draft SCN genome, which will help to develop a quick, inexpensive test for HG type and eventually contribute to understanding of how SCN overcomes a plant’s resistance. They’ll create an “atlas” of SCN genes researchers can use to block the pest. Updating yield loss estimates and mapping SCN distribution will also give scientists a better idea of the nematode’s national impact. Other efforts will allow breeders to incorporate new sources of resistance into commercially-available varieties, refine the use of non-host species to control SCN and develop a pipeline for creating and testing transgenic SCN-resistant soybeans. Finally, videos, webinars and training modules will help scientists, students and producers take advantage of new discoveries and techniques.

Roger Meissen/Bond Life Sciences Center -  Michael Gardner, Ph.D. student, Melissa Mitchum, associate professor of Plant Sciences, Xiaoli Guo, post doctoral fellow, conduct research at the University of Missouri. They investigate how soybean cyst nematode overcomes soybean resistance to identify novel approaches for management.

Roger Meissen/Bond Life Sciences Center – Michael Gardner, Ph.D. student, Melissa Mitchum, associate professor of Plant Sciences, Xiaoli Guo, post doctoral fellow, conduct research at the University of Missouri. They investigate how soybean cyst nematode overcomes soybean resistance to identify novel approaches for management.

Onward with research

A thorough understanding of SCN resistance and virulence starts with basic research and then moves into the field. “We all need to come together to transfer this knowledge to the breeder,” Mitchum said, “and from there it gets out to the farmer.”

 Her lab recently received a National Science Foundation grant to continue their work on soybean protein receptors. Specific targeting of the receptors is just one potential strategy for producing new kinds of SCN-resistant plants. A second grant, from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, will allow the lab to continue refining their understanding of how SCN proteins overcome a host plant’s defenses. To that end, Mitchum’s graduate student Michael Gardner is identifying the genetic blueprint of the different SCN types present in Missouri fields.

“If we better understand nematode populations and what makes those populations distinct, we can better advise farmers confronted with virulent nematodes,” Gardner said. “We’ll be able to go one step beyond the HG type test and understand how nematodes are able to adapt in the long term, not just the next growing season.”

But these breakthroughs do little good unless they then become useful tools for breeders and ultimately farmers. To that end, Mitchum and other researchers will help breeders use research results to produce soybeans with durable resistance. They‘ll also develop guides so farmers can easily incorporate new technologies and management strategies into their farms.

It’s important for farmers, breeders and researchers to take a unified approach to fighting SCN, Mitchum said, because a tactic that seems successful at first could backfire.

For instance, combining resistance genes in a single soybean variety could actually be harmful. “When we deploy it in the field, we select for nematodes that can overcome multiple types of resistance,” Mitchum said.

A better approach might be to perfect varieties with distinctive resistance mechanisms and insure durable resistance by rotating among the resistant varieties and non-host crops.

“It’s similar to taking antibiotics,” Mitchum said. “Improper use and overuse selects for resistance.” The strategic planning document should help everyone working with soybeans and SCN leverage and build upon new knowledge.

Despite all the research and recent breakthroughs, there remains only one certainty in the ongoing arms race between soybeans and SCN: “It is highly unlikely that we will eradicate it.” Mitchum said, “We’re going to have to find new strategies to protect and bolster soybean yields.”

Thanks to the efforts of researchers such as Mitchum, in the future SCN might be a little easier to get along with.

 

 

Roger Meissen/Bond Life Sciences Center - Research specialist and coordinator for the Plant Nematology Lab Amanda Howland processes soil samples for nematodes. Howland replaced Bob Heinz earlier this year.

Roger Meissen/Bond Life Sciences Center – Research specialist and coordinator for the Plant Nematology Lab Amanda Howland processes soil samples for nematodes. Howland replaced Bob Heinz earlier this year.

University of Missouri Plant Nematology Laboratory: An extensive legacy

Bob Heinz spent his last day at work in December surrounded by nematodes. Heinz served as Mitchum’s research specialist and coordinator of the Plant Nematology Laboratory, where he processed soil samples, responded to growers and assisted researchers. After 35 years on the job, he’s retired, and Amanda Howland is now filling his shoes. The scientists and farmers who’ve worked with Bob over the decades thank him for his dedication and wish him luck in his retirement. And Amanda: Welcome aboard.

The Plant Nematology Lab, housed within Mitchum’s lab at MU, represents a successful model for how research, teaching and extension program integration can promote interdisciplinary collaboration. Such an approach helps maintain an effective pipeline that brings research-based information and resources from MU to Missourians. The lab offers an array of tests that help farmers understand and manage nematode populations. The available tests include:

Vermiform Nematode Identification: Soybean Cyst? Root Knot? Lesion? Find out what kinds of nematodes are in your fields with this test.

Soybean Cyst Nematode Egg Count: This procedure provides an estimate of the number of SCN eggs in your field.

Soybean Cyst Nematode HG Type Test: Different types of SCN have overcome various sources of soybean resistance. A HG type test will help you determine the best source of resistance for the particular type of SCN in your field.

For more information, go to http://soilplantlab.missouri.edu/nematode/ or contact the Lab.
Phone: 573-884-9118
Email: nematodelab@missouri.edu

 

Oliver Rando researches effect of fathers’ lifestyles on their children

How much does a newborn know about the world?

That can depend on their parents’ genes, according Oliver Rando, an epigeneticist at the University of Massachusetts.

Rando will speak Saturday, March 14, at 10:30 a.m. at the 11th Annual Life Sciences and Society Program at Bond LSC. His research focuses on how fathers’ lifestyles affect their children, one part of the symposium’s focus on epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of how organisms change because of a modification in gene expression.

Rando is clear that his research is no more important than that of other scientists in his field.

“The field we work in is important since we and others have shown that a father’s lifestyle can potentially affect disease risk and other aspects of his children,” he said.

During his talk on Saturday, Rando will discuss a “paternal effect paradigm” based on experiments his lab conducted on male mice. The mice were fed different diets and mated with control females. Then researchers analyzed the metabolic effects that resulted in their offspring.

“In terms of the basic science aspects of the system, doing this sort of experiment with fathers rather than mothers is important, since mothers provide both an egg and a uterus to the child, whereas in many cases fathers only provide sperm,” Rando said. “So, with fathers you don’t have as many things to look at to find where the relevant information is.”

Scientists in his lab also study yeast and worms to understand epigenetic inheritance. They use molecular biology, genetic and genome-wide techniques to conduct the research.

For more information about Dr. Oliver Rando, read this Q&A from the Boston Globe.

Find more information about LSSP events and speakers at http://lssp.missouri.edu/epigenetics.