Maddie Willis #IAmScience

Maddie Willis

Maddie Willis, a senior biochemistry major, works in the Burke Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

Setting a routine makes everything easier. However, changes to a set routine often leads to complications.

For Maddie Willis, a senior biochemistry major, that change came in the form of working in different labs and learning their unique styles and areas of emphasis. She started in Lori Eggert’s lab freshman year and switched into Frank Schmidt’s lab for the next two years before changing labs a final time for her last year at Mizzou.

“I got involved in research as a freshman [in Eggert’s lab] through the Honors College Discovery Fellows program,” Willis said. “Then when Professor Schmidt retired, he recommended I look into Donald Burke’s lab.”

In Burke’s lab, she works with ribonucleic acid (RNA) aptamers — artificial RNA molecules that bind a particular target. Aptamers can be used for synthetic biology applications, molecular therapies and to investigate origin of life questions.

Willis works on the latter of the three questions and is characterizing features of an RNA aptamer that can discriminate between the two redox states of Flavin adenine dinucleotide (FAD) — a nucleotide cofactor that appears along with many others in modern metabolism. It has been hypothesized that they are holdovers from an RNA world, when RNA catalyzed prebiotic reactions before being replaced by protein enzymes.

“It’s unprecedented that we found an aptamer that can do that, because it’s such a minor change to the molecule,” Willis said. “I’m doing a reselection, allowing mutations to find out what still binds FAD, to find what’s important.”

Willis’ work is more in touch with human nature than anything else. If the aptamer can change the redox potential of bound FAD, it could potentially enable redox chemistry, which is essential for life.

“To an extent, we’re never going to be able to answer what actually happened at a molecular level billions of years ago,” Willis said. “My project, however, helps humanity to learn about where we came from.”

While the project doesn’t have immediate applications, its implications are significant.

“There are huge advances that come from basic research that no one could’ve anticipated, so it’s important to do,” Willis said.

After she graduates in May, Willis is looking to work in industry for a few years before attending graduate school.

“I had an internship last year, and I learned a lot,” Willis said. “I want to get real-world experience before pursuing more education.”

When she’s not in the lab working with RNA, Willis serves as an undergraduate research ambassador for the university.

“We support the office of undergraduate research by talking to students about research opportunities throughout campus,” Willis said.

It’s no secret that Willis has benefited from her time in the lab, so it makes sense she jumped at the opportunity to help others find their place too. In fact, it’s something that has rounded out her college career.

“Research has been the cornerstone of my experience at Mizzou,” Willis said. “Helping people find that is rewarding.”

At halfway mark, Mizzou scientists look to quench thirst for understanding drought’s impact on corn roots

 

Shannon King, a Ph.D. candidate in Biochemistry from the Peck Lab in Bond LSC, gives instructions as faculty and students prepare for harvest. | photo by MJ Rogers, Roots in Drought Project

Shannon King, a Ph.D. candidate in Biochemistry from the Peck Lab in Bond LSC, gives instructions as faculty and students prepare to harvest root samples for later experiments. | photo by MJ Rogers, Roots in Drought Project

By Madelyne Maag | Bond Life Sciences Center

If you’ve ever sat down on a beach, then there is a good chance that you’ve stretched your fingers into the sand, like a plant spreading its roots underground. By sinking deeper into the sand, your fingers are bound to encounter cool, damp sand, where water is more abundant and available to nourish plant life above it.

It’s no secret that commonly known crops like corn need plenty of water to thrive, yet little is known about the massive network of roots that help this plant survive through periods of drought. In March 2016, the National Science Foundation awarded a grant to members of the University of Missouri’s Interdisciplinary Plant Group (IPG) to study corn’s nodal root system under drought conditions.

“One of the largest factors that affects yield in terms of environmental stresses is water limitation,” said Scott Peck, a plant biochemist at the Bond Life Sciences Center. “With the increasing global population and around 70% of water going to agricultural production, there simply won’t be enough water to sustain the global population that needs it. Therefore, we need to figure out a way to maintain crops with less water production.”

Peck is one of several faculty members working on this project that aims to be a first step in finding a solution for farmers when it comes to drought.

So what makes nodal roots so special? Bob Sharp, the project’s primary investigator, plant physiologist in the Division of Plant Sciences and Director of the IPG, explains that corn needs a significant amount of water to maintain growth. Nodal or crown roots, which can be seen growing out from the cornstalk and into the ground around it, provide the framework of the mature plant’s root system that collects most of the water it needs to thrive. The nodal roots grow to more than six feet into the ground to obtain water.

“Roots are a relatively unexplored part of the plant because they’re underground and difficult to study,” Sharp said. “Roots are also critical in the field because they are the part of the plant that directly experiences the drying soil environment, and can influence how the rest of the plant responds to drought.”

Joined by researchers from MU’s Division of Plant Sciences, Department of Biochemistry, Division of Biological Sciences, Department of Health Management and Informatics, School of Journalism and Bond LSC, Sharp is hopeful that they will be able to understand how the roots are able to continue to grow and survive under drought conditions.

As climate change shifts global weather patterns, droughts have hit various parts of the world more severely. Take 2012 in Missouri for example. By mid-July, all 114 counties had declared a state of emergency due to severe drought and suffered millions of dollars in crop loss.

Despite this being one of the most memorable droughts in recent years, these phenomena are not uncommon and certain crops, like corn, have developed a way to battle drought conditions underground.

From the start of the project in 2016, faculty and students have studied one season of growing and harvesting maize plants in the field, as well as using a novel controlled water deficit imposition system in the lab. In the field, Shannon King, a Ph.D. candidate in Biochemistry who is part of the team, is using a “drought simulator” to impose and maintain drought conditions during inclement weather. It works like a massive, open-ended greenhouse on train tracks. When it begins to rain, the simulator rolls over the cornfield being used for this project to keep water at bay. It is then removed once weather conditions improve.

The Drought Simulator, created by Ph.D. candidate Shannon King, acts as a giant mobile greenhouse. Whenever inclement weather moves in, the greenhouse moves on top of the crop field to protect it from any precipitation. Photo by MJ Rogers, Roots in Drought Project

The Drought Simulator, created by Ph.D. candidate Shannon King, acts as a giant mobile greenhouse. Whenever inclement weather moves in, the greenhouse moves on top of the crop field to protect it from any precipitation.
Photo by MJ Rogers, Roots in Drought Project

As the project approaches the halfway mark, the next steps will involve analyses of proteomics, metabolomics, transcriptomics and physiological data from nodal root samples in the lab and field. Once these studies are complete, the team will integrate the datasets using bioinformatics approaches to generate hypotheses on gene candidates and metabolic pathways involved in root growth maintenance under water deficit.

As a Broader Impacts activity of the project, Dr. Sharp and other members of the team will discuss their research at a workshop in the arid environment of northwest China. Here students, postdocs, and faculty will team up with Professor Shaozhong Kang of China Agricultural University to experience first-hand the problems and solutions of agricultural water-use efficiency near the Gobi Desert. The team will also present the importance of the project to the public, farmers, and legislators at the Missouri State Fair.

By understanding the way roots react under drought conditions in a controlled lab setting, in the field in Missouri, and in arid climatic zones across the globe, Sharp hopes that the findings of this project will help improve the ability of plants to find and use water and thereby lessen the global impact of drought on crop productivity.

This grant on “Physiological Genomics of Maize Nodal Root Growth under Drought” was awarded to Dr. Robert Sharp and colleagues at the University of Missouri on March 16, 2016. It is estimated to be completed on February 29, 2020

Laura Greeley #IAmScience

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Laura Greeley, a postdoc, works in the Peck Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I’ve been able to build upon my experiences and explore science in a new, exciting way.”

High school is a weird time for most people because everyone’s trying to figure out where they fit. Laura Greeley was ahead of her time, though.

She uncovered important truths about her passions back then, and the postdoc in Scott Peck’s lab at Bond LSC hasn’t looked back since.

“In high school, I noticed that I had an affinity for chemistry and was inspired by biology, which helped me focus on the path that lead to where I am today,” Greeley said.

While no two days in the lab are the same, Greeley works on a main project centered around mass spectrometry, a technique that is sensitive enough to detect mass changes in molecules as small as a hydrogen atom. This can be used to identify many things, but in Greeley’s case, she wants to identify proteins and molecular changes in them.

“We’re looking at modulations in protein concentrations and possible modifications, such as the adding of a chemical bond,” Greeley said. “These modifications can affect how the protein functions.”

Working on such a small level has bigger applications. How these proteins change when under stressors like drought can tell Greeley and the team of scientists working on this project more about why roots are able to survive, even in the harshest of water conditions.

“We’re still at the exploratory point,” Greeley said. “We’re hoping to see changes in certain similarly functioning proteins that would indicate adaptive behavior.”

Ideally, Greeley would like to see the team uncover how corn root continue growing under harsh drought conditions. This would be an important stepping stone to engineering better crops to help prevent yield losses and, therefore, increase the food supply.

Teaching has also shared the stage with Greeley’s research. Thanks to the guidance of Peck, she’s working toward standing in front of students in the classroom.

“I expressed an interest in being an undergraduate professor one day, and he offered for me to lecture in one of his courses to see if I enjoy it,” Greeley said. “Incorporating that to my postdoc experience in the near future will help me to develop my skillsets for my career.”

Peck’s mentorship has helped Greeley focus her scientific zeal in the classroom and the lab.

“When things go wrong, he’s very supportive about trying to figure out what happened and how to fix it,” Greeley said. “He’s been pushing for more goal-oriented thinking lately, which is great for me.”

After finishing her postdoc, Greeley hopes to keep discovering more answers to the questions she has in the world of science.

“Thus far, each stage of my career has been even better than the last,” Greeley said. “I’m looking forward to that trend continuing.”

Tyler McCubbin #IAmScience

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Tyler McCubbin, a Ph.D. candidate, collaborates with the Peck Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I am passionate about solving real world problems with creative solutions.”

A lot of people get signs as a guide for the direction they’re supposed to take in life. Tyler McCubbin’s sign was more literal.

“There was a giant billboard alongside a county road and it said ‘Pray for Rain,’ and it’s probably still there,” McCubbin said. “Seeing that at the height of the drought was inspiring. It made me question why anyone studies anything other than drought responses.”

Now as a second year Ph.D. student collaborating with Scott Peck’s lab in Bond LSC, McCubbin studies drought’s impact on the crown roots of corn, which grow from the stem.

“We’re interested in what’s unique about those and why they can keep growing while everything else stops,” McCubbin said. “I’m able to make crown roots grow in a very dry environment. Then I dissect them into different regions and see which genes are turned on and off in response to drought.”

By using a strategically designed apparatus, McCubbin can control the soil environment the corn grows in and better understand why crown roots continue to grow.

“It took a lot of time to come up with the apparatus,” McCubbin said. “We’ve spent about a year optimizing it so that it’s repeatable and accurate.”

Doing that has streamlined his research and given him the opportunity to find results that can be applied to other aspects of the grant.

While the effort is collaborative between a number of labs, McCubbin is impressed by how centralized it is.

“The project is funded by the National Science Foundation,” McCubbin said. “There are six labs working on this project all at Mizzou, which makes this unique.”

And when he’s not working on the mechanisms that make corn roots able to survive drought, McCubbin spends as much time as possible outdoors.

“I am passionate about wildlife conservation and have participated in wetland ecosystem restoration efforts for most of my adult life,” McCubbin said. “If I’m not in the lab, I’m outside because it’s where I feel most at home.”

Chris Zachary #IAmScience

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Chris Zachary, a junior chemistry major, stands near his lab station in the Mendoza Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because the lessons I learn through research will help me to one day become an astronaut.”

Asking kids what they want to be when they grow up usually leads to a variety of answers: doctor, lawyer, president, astronaut. A few years down the line, though, most of those answers change.

Chris Zachary, a junior chemistry major, is the exception. He never outgrew the dream of being an astronaut and is involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with going to space in mind.

“There isn’t a clear path to becoming an astronaut, but I was advised to stay in STEM,” Zachary said.

While his ultimate goal requires some extreme preparation and travel, Zachary keeps himself involved to make that dream a reality. Right now, he works in the Mendoza lab at Bond LSC, which he found through his involvement with Mizzou’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD).

“I knew I was interested in science and that I wanted to do something with chemistry,” Zachary said. “During an IMSD meeting, Mendoza came in and talked about what his lab does. I was interested, so I pursued it.”

The opportunity to do something a bit outside of the norm was appealing to Zachary because it helps to diversify his experience as a researcher and a student.

With two years under his belt in the Mendoza lab, Zachary now works to uncover some weighty issues in plant cells.

“Our lab focuses on heavy metal transporters, specifically iron,” Zachary said. “One of the most common forms of malnutrition around the world is anemia, and one of the best ways to fight it is to make more nutritious crops.”

That process is called bio fortification, and it allows plants to be more efficient at absorbing nutrients, which will help to alleviate world hunger.

When he’s not working to feed the world, Zachary’s dreams of blasting off to Mars consume him.

“There’s a lot that goes into being an astronaut, like a height requirement and physical tests, which is pretty daunting,” Zachary said. “In the end, though, it’ll be worth it.”

However, in the meantime he wants to maximize his experiences at Mizzou.

“[When choosing a lab] I didn’t want to close myself off,” Zachary said. “Working here helps me because instead of a narrow field, I chose the broader path. I can say I’m a chemistry major who worked in a plant sciences lab, which is huge.”

 

Sarah Gebkin #IAmScience

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Sarah Gebken, a junior biological engineering major, works in the Pires Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott, Bond LSC

By Allison Scott | Bond Life Sciences Center

“#IAmScience because I bring a unique perspective to the world of research.”

They say only an engineer could figure out their way around the engineering building at Mizzou. Now in her junior year, Sarah Gebken boasts the ability to do just that.

Her unique perspective as a biological engineering major translates to her work in Chris Pires’ lab in Bond LSC, too. As both an engineer and a scientist, Gebken is prepared to contribute new ideas when trying to find solutions to complicated issues.

“Engineering classes are geared toward problem-solving, so I’m able to pinpoint where we’re going to have issues,” Gebken said. “It gives me a different view on research.”

The lab focuses on trying to get Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) to work in Brassica oleracea — a species of plants that includes cabbage, cauliflower and kale. Doing so has the potential to transform the farming industry.

“The main goal of our research is to save farmers space and time,” Gebken said.

CRISPR acts like scissors to DNA, which helps Gebken and her lab mates gain valuable understanding of the genes.

“CRISPR codes for a protein that clamps onto the DNA and makes a cut,” Gebken said. “We’re relying on that cut to knock out a gene to see what the gene actually does.”

Although Gebken has been trying to find a solution to the same question since she joined the lab as a freshman, she still finds the research satisfying.

Working with the plasmids is the next piece of the puzzle that the lab is aiming to complete.

“We’re making progress, which is exciting,” Gebken said. “We just ordered our plasmids yesterday.”

Once they figure that out, it’ll allow them to use that understanding to make better plants for the world moving forward.

After she finishes her undergraduate degree next year, Gebken plans to pursue a master’s degree and ultimately earn a Ph.D.

“I want to go on and be an academic professor, which would be a lot of research,” Gebken said. “Even if I went into industry, I’d want to do some kind of research.”

For Gebken, the quizzical nature of science serves as motivation to keep going.

“In a research setting, everything is a question,” Gebken said. “And you don’t have answers to a lot of them.”

Piecing together plant immunity

Scott Peck-4620.jpgScott Peck studies Arabidopsis and how bacteria perceive it before initiating an infection. Roger Meissen/ Bond LSC

By Madelyne Maag | Bond Life Sciences Center

Bacteria and disease show no mercy to any organism they can effectively attack, including plants.

Yet, plants can also develop an immune response against these threats from their complex genetic makeup.

Scott Peck’s research delves into how plants do this and how bacteria evade those defenses.

Over the course of the last decade, the Bond Life Sciences Center investigator and professor of biochemistry has specifically looked into how plants are able to initially perceive and respond to potential bacterial threats through phosphorylated proteins and pathogen-associated molecular patterns.

“The overarching goal really with all of this research is to improve a plant’s resistance to potential pathogens in order to decrease crop loss,” Peck said. “That’s hundreds of millions of dollars lost every year to disease, so then that’s less food available and higher costs in the market.”

Peck recently published new work from his lab that observes how plants receive messages from potential pathogens and how they develop an immune response to these pathogens on a genetic level.

Similar to humans and animals, plants have a sensory immune response to know when a foreign object, such as a potentially infectious pathogen, shows up. One way they do that is by using receptors to detect certain molecules particular to an enemy like bacteria or viruses when they encounter the surface of a plant’s cells.

These pathogen-associated molecular patterns, or PAMPs, are recognized by the plant’s innate immune system and cause the plant to create a chemical defense against them. More specifically, when PAMPS are perceived, cells activate messenger proteins called mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs), which signal the plant of a potential problem. Because too much defense signaling can be harmful, another protein, MAP kinase phosphatases (MKPs), helps the cell determine how much of a defense response the cell should make against the enemy.

To better understand the plant’s processes of recognition and response to a potential pathogen, two separate studies analyzed how MKP1 is regulated and which cellular pathways are regulated by MKP1.

“For one of the first times, these studies using MKP1 gives us a large, specific set of gene markers to define individual pathways that respond after perception of bacteria,” said Peck. “We can now specifically take individual genes and know how they work and where to place them like a Jigsaw puzzle.”

Both of these studies are able to help us better understand how one particular plant protein reacts to a potential threat.

Peck made it clear that proteins and responses are altered during defense responses.

The next step would be to better understand how these processes interact to help the plant defend itself against a variety of pathogens.

“By really understanding how the plant does what it does under the best circumstances, we can try to then, either through traditional breeding or engineering, get plants to grow and reproduce without being as vulnerable to pathogens,” Peck said.