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Bond Life Sciences Center adds Molecular Interactions Core as a new research hub

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Tom Quinn, director of the Molecular Interactions Core, and others demonstrate equipment for its Jan. 24 open house. | Photo by Katelyn Brown, Bond LSC

By Katelyn Brown, Bond LSC

For researchers, the shape of molecules gives insight into how cells, viruses and other macromolecular interactions take place.

Getting a clear view of that structure is the hard part, and the new Molecular Interactions Core (MIC) at the Bond Life Sciences Center will now give researchers from many different disciplines one place where state-of-the-art equipment are available for them to use to further science.

Dr. Kamal Singh is excited that goal is being realized.

One of the 10 MU’s core facilities that serve scientists’ needs, the MIC specifically provides training, advising and shared equipment for researchers to take a closer look at molecules.

That’s where Dr. Singh comes in.

He serves as the Assistant Director of the MIC and oversees the day-to-day operations of the facility. Dr. Singh makes sure the machines are operational, communicates with researchers interested in using the facility, trains those who do not yet know how to use the equipment and gives guidance as well as collaborative feedback on things like computer-assisted drug design — his specialty.

The humming of machines is the first thing noticed when walking into the MIC. These instruments allow you to look at 3-dimensional models of the molecules like HIV enzymes or view protein crystals under a microscope before diffracting light through them. It’s a lab where miniscule pieces of life become big and important.

Dr. Mark McIntosh, the vice chancellor of research for all UM system campuses, had the idea to create the MIC.

“It was Dr. McIntosh’s vision to bring everything together; which includes structural biology, molecular interactions, particle size, zeta potential, mass of the nanoparticles, etc. He also wanted to bring peptide synthesis here to have everything at one central location,” Dr. Singh said.

Understanding structure at the molecular level helps scientists figure out how reactions happen, how molecules fit together and serve as signals and how pathogens can invade cells, among other possibilities.

“I’m hoping that we can really facilitate structural and molecular research on campus — structural determination and molecular interactions — and really push boundaries of the current state of the field,” said Dr. Tom Quinn, the Director of the MIC.

Dr. Quinn hopes the state-of-the-art equipment will allow the MIC to be a resource for both research faculty and students to be on the cutting edge in their fields.

Dr. Ritcha Mehra-Chaudhary and Dr. Fabio Gallazzi work within the MIC and provide their expertise. Dr. Mehra-Chaudhary works with X-ray crystallography, dynamic light scattering and custom protein expression, while Dr. Gallazzi is an expert in custom peptide synthesis. Their work can be important for understanding drug design to combat viruses and cancers.

The MIC started with one machine, an X-Ray Diffractometer, in room 442 of the  BLSC. It took six months to collect the different machines from different departments in the campus, but in December the MIC became fully operational. The MIC team celebrated with an open house on Jan. 24, 2018.

“It’s kind of crowded, but it’s good,” Dr. Singh said. “We have invited everyone, mainly researchers, but also undergrads. The entire university is welcome to come see what we have. The idea is the advancement of science in our school.”

The MIC won’t only be beneficial for campus researchers, but also researchers from all over and undergrad students who are eager to learn the details of molecular interactions and learn how to use core facilities.

There are many exciting and new technologies in the MIC that will interest outside researchers, according to Dr. Quinn. One of these is the nanodisc technology that Dr. Mehra-Chaudhary works with. This technology allows researchers to study membrane proteins outside of something bigger, like a cell, while also keeping them in a functional and native structural state. The nanodisc project is part of collaboration between the MIC and the Electron Microscopy Core to allow researchers to get high resolution structures of membrane proteins.

While affordable, outside and campus researchers must also pay a price to use the facilities to cover consumables, instrumentation maintenance and staff.

“We definitely want to at least break even. I don’t know how long it will take to get there. However, the major goal is to support the scientists on campus and facilitate their research,” Dr. Singh said.

Bringing this support to campus also means supporting future scientists. Dr. Singh has three undergraduate students working with him who are learning how to use the advanced technology, and he helps to train many more from all different departments.

The goal is to one day expand the MIC to a point where all molecular interactions facilities can be at one place.

“There are certain techniques we don’t have, and I hope that in the future we will get them. We hope to provide all modern techniques to the university community in coming years. Not only linked to that room, we want to expand it,” Dr. Singh said.

Dr. Quinn agrees, and he hopes that as researchers come and use the core. In the process the core can understand future needs and where the research is moving to see what new technology under their umbrella could be added to keep supporting the scientists.

The MIC is a big step for the MU research community, and staff is hopeful that it will continue to grow and produce life-altering research.

From undergrads to scientists

Soybean cyst nematode plant screening

Soybeans are used to screen for genes connected to traits that resist soybean cyst nematode. Recent progress by the the Mitchum lab explores how the plants combat the parasite and how the parasite sidestep genetic protections.

Samantha Kummerer | Bond Life Sciences Center

It might not sound like a traditional undergraduate experience, but Elizabeth Prenger and Andrew Ludwig found success studying a tiny parasitic worm.

It’s called the soybean cyst nematode (SCN) and it sucks more than a billion dollars a year from American soybean farmers. While farmers have used resistant soybeans and crop rotation to fight against the pest, the nematodes continue to gain ground against increasingly less effective methods to control them.

Working in the lab of Melissa Mitchum, a Professor of Plant Sciences at MU’s Bond Life Science Center, they helped understand how soybeans naturally resist this worm and how SCN evades these protections.

That work recently paid off as they saw their names published in the journal Plant Physiology in November 2017. The study explored the genetic mechanisms behind resistance in order to develop better prevention.

Elizabeth Prenger

Elizabeth Prenger studied soybean resistance to soybean cyst nematode in the Bond LSC lab of Melissa Mitchum, leading to a recent publication in the journal Plant Physiology.

“If scientists can understand how resistance genes work and interact then that information can be applied in breeding and developing soybeans,” said former Mitchum lab member Elizabeth Prenger.

While the findings were published in 2017, for Prenger and Andrew Ludwig the research began several years ago.

Prenger came to college knowing she wanted to improve crops and help farmers like her family, she just wasn’t sure exactly how. She joined Mitchum’s lab as a freshman to begin to find out.

As a freshman and sophomore, Prenger worked to purify, sequence and analyze DNA of various soybeans to help further characterize the SHMT gene, a gene that plays a role in a plant’s ability to resist the pest. She also worked in the greenhouse to identify soybeans with mutations in this gene by infecting them with SCN.

Her fellowship supported by the MU Monsanto Undergraduate Research Program sparked her interest in plant genetics but she also realized she wanted more interaction with plants beyond the lab.

Without this early immersion into the lab, Prenger said it would have taken her longer to find her interests.

Now, as a graduate student, she studies soybean genetics at the University of Georgia.

Andrew Ludwig

Andrew Ludwig presents some of his research on nematode resistance at Missouri Life Sciences Week 2017 | Photo by Jinghong Chen, Bond LSC

Ludwig’s position in the lab helped him find his direction in science as well.

He applied for a position while still in high school through the MU Honors College Discovery Fellows Program. The fellowship funds and places undergraduates in labs across campus. His interest in the genetic modification of crops led him to the Mitchum lab.

For three years, Ludwig helped infect different mutants with the nematode and then compare the effect on resistance. This screening helped narrow down the genetic possibilities controlling soybean resistance to a single gene.

“We were hoping the soybeans would have a mutation in one of the resistance genes and then that mutation would cause the gene to cease function so you would see a lot of nematodes on a plant that shouldn’t have any,” he explained.

This experience taught Ludwig how to think like a scientist by developing problem-solving skills.

“I think working in the lab was an immensely valuable experience because I learned so much about what it is to be a scientist and it opened my eyes to a lot more of what the field of plant science really is,” he said.

It also taught him that a traditional lab work environment was not for him. As Ludwig begins to apply for graduate school he is planning to major in horticulture.

His goals changed from wanting to create GMO crops for other countries to now hoping to solve food insecurity closer to home by working with sustainable agriculture and food deserts.

Since joining Mitchum’s lab as undergraduates, both Prenger and Ludwig learned what it means to be scientists and shaped where they are today. The publication of the research that started the path to where they are today was a satisfying conclusion.

“It’s really rewarding to see that all the work exists outside of my lab notebook now,” Ludwig said.

Reflecting on their experience, both students urged other undergraduates to get in a lab as soon as they can to begin discovering themselves and science.

“Go for it. It’s a really helpful experience, it will make you better at what you do even if what you end up doing is different from what you thought you’d do,” Ludwig recommended.

Embracing similarities

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Alexander Franz presents his research on arboviruses and mosquitoes to the Host/Pathogens Research Network. The network brings researchers from across campus together to foster cross-discipline research. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

Bond LSC connects scientists in “hot topic” research
By Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

An immunologist, a plant biologist and a biochemist enter a room.

No, that’s not the start of a geeky science joke, but rather is the start of a conversation meant to spur ideas.

As a group of scientists crowd a conference room in the Bond Life Sciences Center in December, they aim to share ideas about their diverse research projects and disciplines.

Today they set about to learn about viruses in mosquitoes from Alexander Franz of MU’s Department of Veterinary Pathobiology.

“The take-home message is that mosquitoes are not just flying syringes or something,” said Franz, explaining the basic science behind his studies. “That is the very wrong idea. This is a very intricate relationship between the virus and the mosquito.”

He spoke to the scientists in attendance about the Chikungunya virus that is spread by mosquitoes to humans throughout the world and currently has no vaccine. Franz’ work examines the genome of the virus and the virus’ expansion into secondary tissues.

The scientists are part of a research network focused on Host-Pathogen relationships. This overarching topic unifies researchers from across campus who share this commonality. The hope is to spark shared projects between scientists that often find it difficult to make connections outside of their discipline.

This group is one of three hot topic areas Bond LSC is currently targeting to get the conversation started. Researchers across campus joined this network two months ago along with groups interested in metabolomics and cancer biology.

During each meeting, one researcher volunteers to present their work to the group and other members are able to jump in, ask questions or offer advice to bounce ideas off one another.

Bond LSC interim director Walter Gassmann kick started the meetings, recognizing both the need for collaborative research and the central location of the Bond LSC building.

“The increasing complexity and sophistication of basic research leads to increased specialization. Yet, fundamental questions can only be tackled by getting at them from different directions,” Gassmann said.

The LSC has always encouraged collaborative discussions for scientists within the center, but Gassmann decided to expand these to include faculty from all buildings on campus as well as include students in the conversation.

“When I became the interim director, I felt Bond LSC could really function as a catalyst for a wider research community on campus. This meant advertising the “hot topics” meetings across campus,” Gassmann said.

Bond LSC investigator Michael Petris said previously multiple small cancer research groups met, but these meetings expand the group and centralize everyone.

Petris is one of the leaders of the cancer biology group and said the effect of these talks is already showing.

After Petris gave the first talk for the cancer biology group, he was invited to exchange techniques, ideas and cell lines with another researcher who was in attendance.

“The discussions that go on in these sort of groups are, for me at least, opening my eyes to the broader spectrum of cancer biology that goes beyond my wheelhouse, my sort of understanding from a narrow perspective,” Petris said.

One way this is occurring is due to the inclusion of clinicians who deal with patients regularly. Petris explained their perspective on problems in cancer and biology may be something the cancer biologist never even thought of before.

The center supports these talks with the aim of sparking collaborative research, publications, and grants in the future.

A full schedule of spring 2018 hot topic meetings will be released in January.

 

Modifying molecules with lasers

Jay Thelen

Jay Thelen

Brief by Roger Meissen| Bond LSC
What do lasers have to do with food allergies?

Bond LSC’s Jay Thelen was recently part of a team that looked at how short laser pulses might be used to modify peptides and proteins to make foods edible for those with specific allergies.

Thelen, a biochemistry professor, joined scientists from his department, engineering and Denmark to explore this possibility. What they found was a way to modify molecules quicker and more cheaply than current chemical methods. This could potentially lower costs for specific applications in medicine, pharmacology, biotechnology and more.

We don’t want to give everything away, so read the whole story from MU’s College of Engineering here.

Sterling Evans #IAmScience

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Sterling Evans is a sophomore plant sciences major conducting research in Gary Stacey’s lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Allison Scott

By Allison Scott | Bond LSC 

“#IAmScience because I want to focus my research on problems that exist in agriculture in undeveloped and third world countries.”

Sterling Evans’ mind wasn’t focused on research when he started college, but that would soon change.

The sophomore plant sciences major uncovered his interest thanks to Freshman Research in Plant Sciences (FRIPS) — a program dedicated to introducing research to freshman students from plant-related degree programs.

“I was interested in plant sciences-related fields when I started here, but I had no intention of getting involved in undergraduate research,” Evans said. “Being selected for FRIPS was instrumental in getting me involved with research.”

Along with a handful of students selected for FRIPS each year, Evans got to interact with various professors and mentors around campus on a weekly basis. Because of that exposure, Evans found a place in the lab of Bond Life Sciences Center’s Gary Stacey.

After a year working in Stacey’s lab, Evans just joined a new project that aims to improve the nutritional value of soybeans.

“They’re used as a main source of protein for a lot of countries, so improving their nutritional content would have a huge impact,” Evans said.

The team is applies CRISPR, a gene-editing tool, to model plants called Arabidopsis as a first step.

“We are working on Arabidopsis right now as a proof of concept, because it can be done in a relatively short period of time, before investing as much as a two additional years in soybeans,” Evans said.

While he only spends 15 hours in the lab each week, Evans noticed the lab’s impact on his approach to academics in other ways.

“Research gives me more motivation to think about how to apply information I’ve learned in class to work in the lab,” Evans said. “It has made me more analytical in classes because I have more of a desire to understand things.”

Evans plans to earn a Ph.D. in a plant sciences field and wants to continue research in his career. He’s most interested in helping ensure small communities throughout the world have enough to eat, and he hopes to contribute by studying orphan crops.

“I think they’re cool because they’re really important to small people groups. No one studies them because they aren’t a big deal in the United States or other countries,” Evans said. “If we work on them we won’t have a huge impact on hundreds of millions of people, but we will have a huge impact on small communities.”

That impact all started in a lab. Had he not stepped out of his comfort zone he might never have discovered this path, and he highly encourages other students to give research a chance.

“There are labs for almost everything and there’s an area for everyone,” Evans said. “I didn’t know I wanted to do research until I did it.”

Emilia Asante #IAmScience

Emilia Asante #IAmScience
#IAmScience because looking into the unknown and coming up with a plan to take a stab at answering it is so fascinating.”

No one in Emilia Asante’s family works in a science field or attended graduate school.

“As an immigrant from Ghana, my family was unaware of the American educational system,” she said. “So many of my academic journeys were unknown and I had to navigate it by myself. I was always interested in science and with the help of programs such as the Lang Youth Medical program when I was in grades six through 12 and the McNair Program at Earlham College, I was put on the right path. These programs provided the help I need and allowed me to explore science in a way I never knew existed.”

Asante graduated in 2014 from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana with a degree in biology. She is currently pursuing a Ph. D in biological sciences at MU, and works in Anand Chandrasekhar’s lab at Bond LSC.

“I love being able to walk down the hall and talk to other labs about my project and the getting feedback in real time,” she said. “I love the community that I have built since being here.”

For her dissertation topic, Asante is using the zebrafish model to understand the consequences of abnormal neuronal migration of the facial branchiomotor (FBM) neurons on circuit formation and behavioral function. Her research aims to explore the relationship between behavior and circuit organization due to neuronal migration abnormalities of the FBM neurons.

“Essentially, I’m trying to figure out what happens when the proper connections are not made,” she said. “For example, autism is a neurological disease. How does the defect in the brain connections lead to the complex behaviors such communication and social impairments? I want to understand how the brain rewire itself when there is a misconnection.”

Asante has always been interested in behavioral science and how things work. After graduation, she hopes to take the training from her research and lab experience at Bond LSC to a translational research position. Translational research means she would help people in a more direct way, compared to research that is more removed or abstract. Labs that deal with translational research might discover how certain genes cause diseases or work with translating ALS models to drug therapy.

“The possibility that I might discover something that will add to the knowledge in my field – no matter how small the contribution – that’s very exciting,” Asante said.

Drowning in Data

New web-based framework helps scientists analyze and integrate data

By Emily Kummerfeld | Bond LSC

Large-scale data analysis on computers is not exactly what comes to mind when thinking about biological research.

But these days, the potential benefit of work done in the lab or the field depends on them. That’s because often research doesn’t focus on a single biological process, but must be viewed within the context of other processes.

Known as multi-omics, this particular field of study seeks to draw a clearer picture of dynamic biological interactions from gigantic amounts of data. But, how exactly can scientists suitably weave multiple streams of information together, especially considering technology limits and other biological variables?

Trupti Joshi and her team are seeking to find a solution to that problem.

Joshi, as part of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group faculty, works on translational bioinformatics to develop a web-based framework that can analyze large multi-omics data sets, appropriately entitled “Knowledge Base Commons” or KBCommons for short. She describes KBCommons as “a universal, comprehensive web resource for studying everything from genomics data including gene and protein expression, all the way to metabolites and phenotypes.”

Her work began about eight years ago with soybeans. Dubbed the Soybean Knowledge Base (SoyKB), her team had developed a lot of their own data analysis tools for soybean research, but they realized the same tools could help research of other organisms. From there sprouted the Knowledge Base Commons, intended for looking at plants, animals, crops or disease datasets without the need to “reinvent the wheel” each time.

SoyBean.jpg

Soybean plants used in research that utilizes Soy KB web-based network. | Emily Kummerfeld, Bond LSC

“Our main focus has been in enabling translational genomics research and applications from a biological user’s perspective, and so our development has been providing graphic visualization tools,” Joshi said.

Those tools provide an array of colorful graphics from basic bar graphs to assorted colored pie charts to help the researcher better analyze the data once data has been added to the KBCommons.

Colorful graphs and comparisons lets many researchers look past the lines of text and tables full of numbers that represent genes, plant traits or other experimental results, and making the interpretation of data much more easier and efficient.

One particular tool allows the researcher to look at the differential genes of four different comparisons or samples at the same time. Differential genes are the genes in a cell responding differently between different experimental conditions. For example, a blood cell and a skin cell both have the same DNA, however, some genes are not expressed in the blood cell that are expressed in the skin cell. With this KBCommons tool, a researcher can examine genes to see “what are the common ones, what are the unique ones to that, and at the same time look at the list of the genes and their functions directly on the website, without having to really go and pull these from different websites or be working with Excel sheets,” Joshi explained.

She envisions KBCommons as a tool to enable translational research as well. Users will be able to compare crops, such as legumes and maize for food security studies, or link research between veterinary medicine and human clinical studies for better therapies.

Intended for a wide range of users, Joshi is keenly aware of its potential users right here at MU.

One current user of the Soybean Knowledge Base (SoyKB) system is Gary Stacey, whose lab at Bond Life Sciences Center studies soybean genomics and to date has been the longest user of the SoyKB resource. Like many researchers, Stacey explained the need for a program like SoyKB that can process enormous amounts of data.

“The reason it’s called “Knowledge Base” is the idea that we’re putting information in, and what we hope to get out is knowledge. Because information is different than knowledge,” he said, “we don’t just want to collect stamps, we want to be able to actually make some sense out of it…By having a place to store the data, and then more importantly have a place to analyze it and integrate it, it allows us to ask better questions.”

This is essential, given that one soybean genome is 1.15 GB in size, and one thousand soybean genome sequences could generate 30 to 50 TB of raw sequencing data and tens of millions of genomic variations (SNPs).

But such numbers are modest compared to the program’s true capabilities.

“The KBCommons system is so powerful that it can allow you to run thousands of genomes at the same time using our XSEDE gateway allocations,” Joshi said. “This whole scalability is a unique feature of KBCommons, which a lot of databases do not provide, and we are happy we have been able to bring that to our MU Faculty collaborators on these projects, so that they can really utilize the remote high performance computing (HPC), cloud storage and new evolving techniques in the field.”

KbCommons.jpg

KB Commons is a new web-based network for biological data analysis and integration developed by students. | Emily Kummerfeld, Bond LSC

Mass data capability and colorful graphs aside, her favorite part is who exactly is designing the program.

“What I like most about KBCommons is that it serves as a training and development ground and is developed by students, undergraduate and graduate students from computer science and our MUII informatics program.”

KBCommons is still under development, but publication and access for all users is planned for the end of this year or early 2018. Users will not only be able to view public data sets, but add their own private data sets and establish collaborative groups to share data.

Dr. Trupti Joshi is an Assistant Professor and faculty in the Department of Health Management Informatics, the Director for Translational Bioinformatics with the School of Medicine, and Core Faculty of the MU Informatics Institute and Department of Computer Science and the Interdisciplinary Plant Group.

 

Beverly Agtuca #IAmScience

Beverly Agtuca

Beverly Agtuca, a Ph.D. candidate that works in Dr. Gary Stacey’s lab in Bond LSC. | photo by MJ Rogers

Beverly Agtuca was born in New York, but has family in the Philippines, a country that struggles with malnutrition and undernourishment. Her overall goal for her research is to help countries that struggle with undernourishment by increasing the agricultural productivity in those countries.

“When I was little, I went on summer vacation to visit my family, which included my grandmother in the Philippines,” she said. “Everyday my grandmother wanted me to go out to the rice fields from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. with the other children to get rice for our meals. That was not an easy task and that moment changed my life. That’s when I decided that I wanted to be a plant scientist.”

Agtuca graduated in 2014 with honors in Biotechnology and a minor of Microscopy from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) in Syracuse, NY. She’s currently a Ph.D. candidate in plant breeding, genetics, and genomics at MU. She chose to come to Bond LSC because of the community and Dr. Stacey, her supervisor and mentor.

“If you ever need help, there’s always help here,” she said. “Everyone at Bond LSC is so kind, including the staff. I love to make small talk with the custodians and they are always supporting me and say I should never give up when I have a bad day.”

Ever since coming to MU in 2014, Agtuca has been keeping busy. In June, she received a travel award to go to the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) in Hawaii. The International Society for Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions (IS-MPMI) also awarded her a travel award to attend the 2016 meeting in Portland, Oregon, where she gave an oral and poster presentation. She also has two original research publications under her belt and is currently working in Dr. Gary Stacey’s lab at Bond LSC.

The research for her dissertation is focused on the relationship between rhizobia and soybeans. She collaborates with scientists at George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, D.C. and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington to enhance the capabilities of the 21 Tesla Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometer (21T FTICR) through application of laser ablation – electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (LAESI-MS) technology that can analyze the contents of single plant cells. This 21T FTICR machine was recently installed at PNNL and represents one of only two such machines in the world.

This is revolutionary because few people do single cell analysis. Usually, scientists deal with the law of averages, which dilutes the final measurements. But this technology gives an in-depth glimpse into a single cell so scientists can obtain a more comprehensive bigger picture.

“After we finish building this technology, we want to spread the technique to different research groups so they can answer these research questions on their own,” said Agtuca. “It can help people outside of plant sciences too, and hopefully will help with cancer treatment and disease prevention.”

Samuel McInturf #IAmScience

Samuel McInturf, Ph.D. candidate

Samuel McInturf, Ph.D. candidate

#IAmScience because it’s fun. You’re paid to work with exotic materials and instruments to solve problems that drive at how life manifests.”

Samuel McInturf’s father is an accountant and his mother is an HR director, but somehow he ended up falling in love with science. By the 4th grade he had already asked his parents to buy him a compound microscope. He completed his undergraduate degree in plant biology at University of Nebraska, Lincoln with a minor in biochemistry. Now, he’s finishing up his fifth year pursuing a Ph.D in plant stress biology and works in Dr. David Mendoza-Cózatl’s lab at Bond LSC.

“I mainly came to Bond LSC to work with Dr. Mendoza,” said McInturf. “The work in his lab was right in line with what I wanted to do and I knew the faculty at Bond LSC was great.”

And he’s enjoyed the last five years he’s spent here.

“Bond LSC has vast resources of knowledge and labs are very friendly towards one another,” he said. “So if you are short up on a reagent, or you need to learn to do an assay, someone is always available to lend a hand.”

McInturf’s thesis deals with understanding the genetic factors that balance the uptake and demand for micronutrients – heavy metals – against their toxicity. He specifically looks are regulators of iron and zinc homeostasis.

In addition to his interest in plant biology, he’s also an engineer of sorts. McInturf helps teach a bioengineering class at Bond LSC with undergraduates. The goal of the class is to build robotics that aid laboratory research, and he has taught three of these classes so far.

“I found the change in scale between building widgets in my bedroom to building full scale devices challenging, but ultimately rewarding,” he said.

For undergraduates interested in continuing a career in science, McInturf advises them not to give up, even when things get tough. He admits that he was intent on dropping out of school up until he was 18, but now he’s almost finished with his Ph.D.

“Ten years ago I was very intimidated by what I saw as the difficulty of science and was wavering on whether I wanted to take the dive into a research-heavy field,” he said. “It took a few years to figure that out, so I guess I would have told myself to get a move on and not be so faint hearted about it.”

McInturf isn’t positive where he’s like to be in 10 years, but he’d enjoy continuing to teach and conduct research at a university like MU.

“I’d love to have Dr. Mendoza’s job one day,” he laughed.

The gall of it

How bossy insects make submissive plants create curious growths

By Samantha Kummerer | Bond LSC

They are bumps on leaves, bulges in stems and almost flower-like growths from plant tissue with a striking amount of variety. They are galls.

These unnatural growths garnered the curiosity of Jack Schulz for years. While he’s spent 40 years studying topics from Insect elicitors to habitat specialization by plants in Amazonian forests, what he’s really wanted to study was galls.

“It’s so weird,” said Schultz, director of the Bond Life Sciences Center. “I’ve always been really curious about how these strange structures form on plants.”

Schultz has spent the last two years trying to answer that question, looking at their development and the underlying genetic changes that make galls possible.

He’s not alone in his fascination.

“I found my very first gall when I was a masters student,” said Melanie Body, a postdoctoral researcher in Schultz’s lab. “I was really excited because it was here the whole time, I just didn’t see it. One of my teachers showed me and it was like a revelation, basically, what I wanted to work on.”

These “strange structures” are often mistaken for fruit or flower buds on a variety of plants from oak trees to grapevines and there’s a good reason why…

“A gall on a plant is actually, at least partly, a flower or a fruit in the wrong place,” Schultz said.

Galls on a leaf

Galls on a leaf. The leaf’s red bumps are not natural, but caused by tiny insects. Inside each gall is many tiny insects. | photo by Melanie Body

These galls can be the size of a baseball or the size of a small bump depending on the plant. They can also range from just small green bumps on the undersides of leaves to vivid complex growths of color.

Despite the variety, the one thing consist across plants is that the gall is not there by the plant’s choice.

“The insect has a pretty good strategy because it starts feeding on the plant and it will create a kind of huge structure, huge organ, where it can live in, so it’s making it’s own house,” Body said.

The reasoning behind the formation is relatively unknown, however, it is hypothesized that the insect flips a switch within the plant. The insect is not injecting anything new, but rather turning off and on certain genes within the plant.

Schultz explained the galling insect has the power to changes the expression of genes and in some instance disorient the plant’s determination of what is up from down.

The Problem

So how does this affect the plant?

Not only is the insect creating the gall against the plant’s nature, it is also using the plant’s energy and materials for the job.

“I think it’s very cool to imagine an insect can hijack the plant pathway to use it for its own advantage,” Body said.

Galls

The view of a gall from under a microscope. The mother insect is the orange figure in the foreground and is surrounded by her eggs. | Photo by Melanie Body

The insect receives protection and a unique food source and in turn, the plant is left with fewer resources.

“From the plant’s point of view that’s all materials that could have gone into growth and reproduction, so you can think of these galling insects as competing with the plant they’re on for the goodies the plant needs to grow and reproduce,” Schultz explained. “That’s not so good for producing grapes.”

Grapevines are just one of the many plants that galls can form on, but also the plant Schultz’s research uses.

“In our case we work on grapes, so it can be a big issue if the fruits are not sweet enough anymore, because if you don’t have sugar in the fruit then it’s not good enough for the wine production, so it’s pretty important,” Body explained.

Melanie Body

Researcher Melanie Body searches the grapevines for galls at Les Bourgeois Vineyards. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

In Missouri, the story of grapevines and galls goes back to the 1800’s.

The story goes, the phylloxera insect found its way over to France. Soon it spread throughout the country; wiping out vineyard after vineyard.

“The great wine blight and the world was going to lose all wine production because of this pest,” said Schultz.

Luckily, a small discovery in native Missouri grapevines led to a solution that allowed wine drinkers to rejoice and scientists to puzzle.

“There’s something about the genes in Missouri grapevines that protects them against this insect,” Schultz explained.

While the European wine industry faced extinction, the phylloxera insect, coexisted with native Missouri grapevines. So, now every grapevine in a vineyard is grafted with insect-resistant roots from Missouri grapes.

But, no one really understands what’s so special about grapevine roots in Missouri.

The research

These galls aren’t new. They’ve actually existed for up to 120 million years. But, here’s what is:

“When we started this research, we thought this is a really well-studied insect,” Schultz said. “It turns out there is an awful lot we don’t know about them.”

The team collects samples of galls from grapevines at Les Bourgeois. Back in the lab the galls are dissected using very small tools and then examined with a microscope. Under the microscope, a colony of the insects emerges. The otherwise miniscule mother insect and her 200 eggs can be seen alongside other insects just moving around the gall.

Melanie Body

Researcher Melanie Body examines a grapevine gall under a microscope. Body is a member of Jack Schultz’s lab that studies galls and the insects that create them. | Photo by Samantha Kummerer, Bond LSC

Body compares the insects’ round textured bodies to oranges but with two black eyes.

Schultz’s team hypothesized that there are specific flower or fruit forming genes that are necessary for the insect to create a gall.

To answer this, the team looks at which genes are turned on when the insect creates the formation of a gall. Those observations by themselves don’t prove which genes are essential. So, next, the researchers manipulate the genes by changing the gene’s expression.

“If we find that Gene A is always on when the insect causes a gall to form, we can stop the expression of Gene A to test the hypothesis that it needs gene A to get the gall to form,” Schultz explained. “We can ask a plant. If you lack Gene A, can our insects still form galls?”

The researchers are still analyzing the results, but the current findings suggest that some genes do reduce the insect’s ability to make a gall.

Microscopic view galls

A microscopic view of a galling insect in the process of creating a gall. The gall is forming around the insect. | Photo by Melanie Body and David Stalla

Since beginning the research two years ago, Schultz said he has discovered, “all kinds of crazy things”.

Schultz said it was previously believed that the insect was staying in one place when making the circular gall, but actually, the little insect is moving around; something no one realized before.

And that’s not the only myth this research is debunking. For example, many believe there is one insect per gall, but this turns out to be incorrect. The gall can actually become a hospital of sorts where many mother insects flock to move in and lay their eggs.

And although galls sounds like an odd area of study, the research actually falls under basic developmental biology.

Schultz said research on galls could lead to discoveries about flowering and fruiting.

“Finding a situation in which flower or fruit structures are forming in odd places is actually suggesting to us, pathways and signals that are probably not as well studied in developmental – normal flowers and fruits,” Schultz said.

Beyond curiosity, one of the reasons to study the galls is to find a way to reduce the number of pesticides used on grapevines. The small size of the galling-insect causes grape growers to spray a lot of chemicals.

There’s a lot of discoveries, a lot of implications, but also still a lot of unknowns. Schultz doesn’t let that discourage him.

“If we knew everything about all kinds of things in nature, I’d be out of business and we’d have nothing to do,” Schultz reassured.

The curiosity behind the research continues to hold true for both Schultz and Body outside the lab. From collecting galls for each other to photographing the mysterious spheres, the two are always on the look out for the hidden work of the tiny insect.

“They’re everywhere,” Body said.