About Justin L. Stewart

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Unmasking the unknown

Scientists explore genetic similarities between plants and mice

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University of Missouri PhD Candidate Daniel L. Leuchtman peers through an Arabidopsis plant. Leuchtman has been experimenting with replacing a gene in the plants immune system with a similar gene from mice. | Photograph by Justin L. Stewart/MU Bond Life Sciences Center

By Justin L. Stewart | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

Almost two-thirds of what makes a human a human and a fly a fly are the same, according to the NIH genome research institute.

If recent research at the University of Missouri’s Bond Life Sciences Center is verified, we’ll soon see that plants and mice aren’t all that different, either.

Dan Leuchtman studies a gene in Arabidopsis plants called SRFR1, or “Surfer One.” SRFR1 regulates plant immune systems and tell them when they are infected with diseases or illnesses. Leuchtman studies this model plant as a Ph.D. candidate at MU, splitting time between the labs of Walter Gassmann and Mannie Liscum.

His research involves breeding Arabidopsis plants missing the SRFR1 gene and then replacing it with the MmSRFR1 gene.

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A series of Arabidopsis plants show the differences between the plants, from left, without SRFR1, with MmSRFR1 and with SRFR1. | Photograph by Justin L. Stewart/MU Bond Life Sciences Center

So, what is MmSRFR1? Leuchtman and company believe it’s the animal equivalent of SRFR1, though they aren’t fully aware of all of its’ functions.

“We’re actually one of the first groups to characterize it,” Leuchtman said.

Arabidopsis plants missing the SRFR1 gene struggle to grow at all, appearing vastly different from normal plants. Leuchtman says that a plant missing the SRFR1 gene is a mangled little ball of leaves curled in on itself. “It’s really strange looking.”

While his experiments haven’t created statuesque plants equal to those with natural SRFR1 genes present, the Arabidopsis plants with MmSRFR1 show a notable difference from those completely lacking SRFR1. Leuchtman says the plants with MmSRFR1 lie somewhere in between a normal plant and one lacking SRFR1.

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University of Missouri PhD Candidate Daniel L. Leuchtman poses for a portrait in a Bond Life Sciences Center greenhouse. Leuchtman has been experimenting with replacing a gene in Arabidopsis plants immune system with a similar gene from mice. | Photograph by Justin L. Stewart/MU Bond Life Sciences Center

“At its’ core, it’s more understanding fundamental biology. How do we work? How do organisms tick? How do you go from DNA in a little bag of salts to a walking, talking organism?” Leuchtman said. “The more you know about how an organism functions, the more opportunities you have to find something that makes an impact.”

Family genes

MU freshman follows in aunt’s footsteps while exploring career options

Robert Schmidt poses with one of the cats that lives at Horton Animal Hospital, where he works part-time. Schmidt, a freshman studying biochemistry at the University of Missouri, is a member of the Discovery Fellows Program.

Robert Schmidt poses with one of the cats that lives at Horton Animal Hospital, where he works part-time. Schmidt, a freshman studying biochemistry at the University of Missouri, is a member of the Discovery Fellows Program where he is learning about plant genetics by working with biologist Scott Peck in the Bond Life Sciences Center. Photo by Justin L. Stewart | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

By Justin L. Stewart | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

Sometimes it’s socks. Another time, it was a book cover.

Robert Schmidt has retrieved quite a few things from misguided pets’ digestive systems as an assistant at Horton Animal Hospital, where he’s worked with his aunt for the past three years.

While most of the time he helps with simpler things — such as feeding kenneled animals or spaying and neutering pets — he also has amputated a dog’s toe after it had a lawnmower mishap.

Schmidt says he’s kind of following in his aunt’s footsteps. She majored in biochemistry at the University of Missouri and studied at its veterinary school, too. That’s what Robert wants to do with his life.

Schmidt demonstrates how to apply ear medication to a nervous small dog at Horton Animal Hospital on Forum.

Schmidt demonstrates to a pet owner how to apply ear medication to a nervous small dog at Horton Animal Hospital on Forum. Schmidt works at the animal hospital part-time with his aunt. Photo by Justin L. Stewart | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

Schmidt likes working with animals, but pets aren’t the only animals he’s interested in. An internship at the MU Animal Sciences Research Center two summers ago had Schmidt elbow deep in fistulated cows’ stomachs as he assisted in research that tested the affects of adding different metals in cows feed to help them better absorb protein.

“My family’s always had a dog, my sister has a cat and I work at a small animal clinic. For a while, I was just like, ‘I’m not going to work with cows. I didn’t grow up on a farm.’ But now, after the internship, I’m interested in getting some more experience.”

As a freshman in the Discovery Fellows Program, Schmidt now finds himself knuckle deep in dirt as he digs into plant genetics.

The Discovery Fellows Program pairs first-semester freshmen and sophomores with scientists in their chosen field, allowing them to get hands-on experience in research on campus while earning a $1,700 stipend.

That led Schmidt, an MU Honors College student, to the lab of biologist Scott Peck in the Bond Life Sciences Center.

Schmidt plants Arabidopsis seeds in a petri dish.

Schmidt plants Arabidopsis seeds in a petri dish inside the Bond Life Sciences Center, where his fellowship work is. Photo by Justin L. Stewart | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

Peck studies how plants recognize and respond to infections, specifically focusing on three proteins that begin to chemically modify shortly after a plant is infected.

No one knows what these proteins actually do, Peck said, making the research that much more interesting.

Schmidt has been growing Arabidopsis seeds of three different types, each missing one of the three proteins. Once those seeds have fully grown, Schmidt said they will cross-pollinate the three variations to hopefully create a plant without any of those three proteins.

He hopes to have triple mutants by early next semester, so they can experiment with them to better understand the roles of the absent proteins.

While Schmidt came into Peck’s lab with more of an interest in animals, he sees how the skills translate.

“If I worked with animals, I’d want to do genetics and I’m doing genetics with plants right now. A lot of the lab techniques are transferable.”

Schmidt moves an Arabidopsis seedling from a petri dish to fresh soil with the rest of the grown seedlings. Arabidopsis can grow from seed to seedling with two weeks. It's a favorite among scientist, according to the National Science Foundation.

Schmidt moves an Arabidopsis seedling from a petri dish to fresh soil with the rest of the grown seedlings. Arabidopsis can grow from seed to seedling with two weeks. It’s a favorite among scientist, according to the National Science Foundation. Photo by Justin L. Stewart | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

Like most freshman, the former Rockbridge Valedictorian is still figuring out his life plans. He’s considering a double major in math, a favorite subject of his, and now wonders whether he might attend graduate school instead of vet school.

“I really like learning, being in a classroom and being a student. I really enjoy that. I think research is almost like a career where you’re almost always a student. You’re just always learning.”

As for now, he’s just waiting for his first batch of Arabidopsis seeds to mature.