Research

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.

Pigs pave the way for advancements in IVF treatment

New research makes IVF four times more efficient to create pigs like this for genetics research and breeding in labs like that of Randy Prather at MU. | Photo by Nicholas Benner.

New research makes IVF four times more efficient to create pigs like this for genetics research and breeding in labs like that of Randy Prather at MU. | Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Research quadruples speed and efficiency to develop embryos 

By Samantha Kummerer | Bond LSC

What started as a serendipitous discovery is now opening the door for decreasing the costs and risks involved with in vitro fertilization (IVF).

And it all started with cultured pig cells.

Dr. Michael Roberts’ and Dr. Randall Prather’s laboratories in the University of Missouri work with pigs to research stem cells. During an attempt to improve how they grew these cells, researchers stumbled across a method to improve the success of IVF in pigs.

“Sometimes you start an experiment and come up with up with a side project and it turns out to be really good,” Researcher Ye Yuan said.

Their discovery doubles the number of piglets born and speeds up the entire IVF process by 400 percent, which significantly increases both the efficiency of experiments and their potential application to other species. The journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published their work July 3 in its online early edition.

 

From the beginning:

The Prather lab in the MU Animal Sciences Research Center uses genetically modified pig embryos to improve pig production for agriculture and also to mimic human disease states, such as cystic fibrosis. Roberts’ team in the Bond Life Sciences Center occasionally collaborates with Prather’s lab to produce genetically modified pigs for this valuable research. However, the efficiency of producing these pigs is very low because it depends on multiple steps.

First, scientists remove oocytes (“eggs”) and the “nurse” cells that surround them from immature female pig ovaries and place the eggs in a chemical environment designed to mature the eggs, allowing them to be fertilized in vitro with sperm from a boar. This process creates zygotes, which are single-celled embryos, that are allowed to develop further until they become hollow balls of cells called blastocysts about six-days later. These tiny embryos are then transferred back into a female pig with the hopes of achieving a successful pregnancy and healthy piglets.

However, Roberts said the chance of generating a successful piglet after all those steps is very low; only 1-2 percent of the original eggs make it that far.

The quality of the premature eggs and the process of maturing them significantly reduces the rate of success.

“In other words, all this depends on having oocytes that are competent, that is they can be fertilized, form blastocysts and initiate a successful pregnancy,” Roberts explained.

Normally, researchers overcome the low success rate by starting out with a very large number of eggs, but this takes lots of time and money.

So, lab researchers, Ye Yuan and Lee Spate, began tinkering with the way the eggs were cultured before they were fertilized, making use of special growth factors they used when culturing pig embryonic stem cells.

Yuan and Spate added two factors called fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2) and leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF).

This combination helped more than the use of just a single factor and so they decided to add a third factor, insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1).

Together the three compounds create the chemical medium termed “FLI”.

“It improved every aspect of the whole process,” Roberts said. “It almost doubled the efficiency of oocyte maturation in terms of going through meiosis. It appeared to improve fertilization and it improved the production of blastocysts.”

In all, the use of FLI medium doubles the number of piglets born and quadruples the efficiency of the entire process from egg to piglet.

While the researchers are still figuring out why the three factors work together so well, Roberts believes it has to do with the fluid that surrounds the immature eggs while they are still in the ovary.

Roberts explained that unusual metabolic changes happen in the eggs and their nurse cells when the three components are used in combination but not when they are used on their own. These components are also found in the follicular fluid surrounding the egg when it is in the ovary.

However, follicular fluid actually contains factors that hinder egg maturation until the time is right, so it would seem counterintuitive to add the fluid to a chemical environment aimed at maturing the eggs. However, when freed from the other components of follicular fluid, the three growth factors act efficiently to promote maturation.

“It just creates this whole nurse environment for that egg. Once you’ve done that you’ve sort of patterned them to do everything else after that properly — fertilization, development of that fertilized egg to form a blastocyst, and the capability of those blastocysts to give rise to a piglet,” Roberts said.

Researchers hope the FLI medium can be translated beyond genetically modified pigs.

“If we could translate this to other species it could be more meaningful,” Yuan explained.

For the cattle industry, FLI has the potential to decrease the time between generations in highly prized animals.

Currently, if an immature dairy cow has desirable traits, the industry has to wait a year or so for that cow to mature and for its eggs to be collected. Using FLI medium immature eggs could be retrieved when the prized female is still a calf. After fertilizing them with semen from a prized bull, production of more cows with desirable traits could be achieved in a shorter amount of time.

The potential implications of this discovery aren’t just for farm animals.

Yuan said if this treatment could be applied to humans it would be a big help for both the patient and the whole field of human IVF.

Currently, in vitro fertilization for humans comes with high costs and risks.

“You try to generate a lot of eggs from the patients by using super-high doses of expensive hormones, which is not necessarily good for the patient and can, in fact, be risky. ” Roberts explained.

These eggs are then collected, fertilized, and the best-looking embryo transferred back to the patient. As in pigs, this overall process isn’t all that efficient. The hope is that the treatment of the patient with hormones can be minimized if immature eggs are collected directly from the ovary by using an endoscope and matured in FLI medium, allowing them to be just as competent as those retrieved after high hormone treatment.

“The idea is it would be safer for the woman, it would be cheaper, and it might even achieve a better success rate,” Roberts said.

The team still has some time before knowing for sure if FLI medium is applicable in other mammals.

Yuan said the focus is now on understanding the mechanism behind how the three compounds work so well together.

For now, preliminary data are being collected with mice and a patent is awaiting approval. Still, the team has high hopes for this almost accidental finding.

“Whenever you’re doing science, you’d like to think you’re doing something that could be useful,” Roberts said. “I mean when we started this out it wasn’t to improve fertility IVF in women, it was to just get better oocytes in pigs. Now it’s possible that FLI medium could become important in bovine embryo work and possibly even help with human IVF.”

 

Michael Roberts is a Bond LSC scientist and a Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Animal Science, Biochemistry and Veterinary Pathobiology in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) and the College of Veterinary Medicine. He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Randall Prather is a Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Animal Science in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) and Director of the National Institutes of Health funded National Swine Resource and Research Center.

Paige Gruenke #IAmScience

Paige Gruenke

Paige Gruenke, a Ph.D candidate in Dr. Donald Burke’s lab in Bond LSC. | Photo by Mary Jane Rogers, Bond LSC

By Mary Jane Rogers | Bond LSC

“#IAmScience because I am fascinated by life on a molecular level and inspired that my research could positively impact medicine.”

As a graduate student in Donald Burke’s lab at Bond LSC, Paige Gruenke explores the role of ribonucleic acid, or RNA. That means her work involves a lot of test tubes. She looks at how specialized RNA molecules, called aptamers, bind tightly and specifically to proteins from HIV to prevent the virus from replicating. Her job is to locate the aptamers that bind to HIV proteins from a very large starting pool of RNA sequences by doing repeated cycles of removing the sequences that don’t bind and keeping the ones that do, until the strong binders dominate the population.

“A lot of the things I do don’t sound very exciting,” said Gruenke. “It’s throwing components into tubes and waiting for things to happen. It might sound mundane, but it’s all for the greater good.”

Gruenke hopes that her research will give scientists a better understanding of HIV, because understanding the virus will lead to better drug treatments and eventually, a cure. She is finishing up her second year as a Ph.D candidate in biochemistry, and plans to graduate by summer 2020. Gruenke has always been interested in the area of molecular medicine, but she has some advice for students who are just getting started.

“On a day to day basis, many experiments fail,” said Gruenke. “You’re always going to be learning something you didn’t know before. So, don’t be disheartened because something didn’t work out — just keep trying. Because whenever you have an ‘Aha!’ moment, it makes it all worthwhile.”

#MeetScienceTwitter

How an MU student helped start a Twitter trend and how social media is advancing science.

By Mary Jane Rogers | Bond LSC

In the modern age, science isn’t a solitary endeavor.

You might be a tweet away from connecting with scientists about their work, as one MU student recently proved.

Dalton Ludwick, an MU doctoral student in entomology, helped spur a hashtag trend to connect real scientists with none other than Bill Nye.

If you follow any scientists on Twitter, you may have come across the hashtag #BillMeetScienceTwitter while scrolling through your feed. Thousands of scientists on Twitter introduced themselves to the famous TV host of Bill Nye the Science Guy using the hashtag. By May 22, a mere three days after the hashtag started, more than 27,000 scientists and experts had tweeted at Nye.

#BillMeetScienceTwitter was born from a Twitter discussion between Ludwick, London-based zoologist Dani Rabaiotti and New Zealand-based marine biologist Melissa Marquez.

Bill Nye Saves the World

“Bill Nye Saves the World” is a television show currently streaming on Netflix hosted by Bill Nye. The first season explores topics such as climate change, alternative medicine and video games.

The original sentiment behind the hashtag was something scientists have long been discussing — that Nye’s television show doesn’t include a diverse array of science experts to answer questions outside Nye’s specialty. On Season One of his show, a majority of the experts Nye invited were comedians, supermodels and Hollywood stars, like Karlie Kloss and Zach Braff.

We were curious about the origins of this campaign, so we reached out to Ludwick, one of the creators of the hashtag.

MU Bond LSC Tweet Dalton Ludwick Response

Ludwick regularly uses social media to reach out and connect with other scientists. He meets other scientists on Twitter, shares ideas and often turns that conversation into a real-life, professional relationship on a global scale.

Dalton Ludwick

Dalton Ludwick, a Ph.D candidate in Entomology at MU and one of the creators of #BillMeetScienceTwitter.

“I talk to people from the UK, Australia and New Zealand on social media,” he said. “It’s a great way to connect with people.”

Social media is a game changer for scientists who once felt walled off from the broader world. It can be a great way to connect with people doing similar research, track grants and jobs, share exciting breakthroughs, and follow conferences.

Jared Decker, an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at MU, is another avid social media user on campus. He uses Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts to connect with other science professionals and academics, as well as his public — mainly beef and cattle producers and farmers.

Jared Decker

Jared Decker, an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at MU.

“Just the other night I was writing a grant and one of the reviewers had a specific criticism,” he said. “So, I got on Twitter and asked my question. A colleague of mine was online in Australia and was able to respond to make sure we were meeting the guidelines.”

Jared Decker

Scientists used to have to walk down the hall to ask a colleague, or play phone tag with someone abroad.

“You can’t do that at 1 a.m.,” said Decker, “but you can go on Twitter.”

Many scientists believed that Nye’s television show wasn’t utilizing his vast array of science connections to find experts in specific fields of science.

“If you ask me about biology or oncology, I probably shouldn’t answer because that’s not my area of expertise,” said Ludwick.

In response to a tweet by Rabaiotti, Mike Stevenson was the first to ask if anyone had reached out to Nye on Twitter. Ludwick replied to that conversation with the hashtag #BillMeetScienceTwitter, which was meant to show Nye the diversity of scientists on social media.

Dani Rabaiotti original tweet

Rabaiotti – a Ph.D candidate at University College London, who studies the effects of climate change on wild dogs in Africa – was the first to introduce herself to Nye.

First #BillMeetScienceTwitter post

Overall, the tweets and engagement have been overwhelmingly positive.

Maryam Zaringhalam Dr. Solomon David Katherine Crocker Laura Skates Amanda L. Glaze Anne A Madden, Ph.D

We decided to tweet at Nye too!

MU Bond LSC

“What we were actually trying to do was reach out and offer assistance in areas outside the expertise of Bill and Neil,” said Ludwick. “We wanted to show the diversity of people doing science, as well as the diversity of the science that we do. More than 50 percent of the people tweeting on #BillMeetScienceTwitter were women — certainly not just a bunch of nerdy men in lab coats!”

Ludwick adds that the hashtag wasn’t intended as an attack on Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson, another scientist celebrity with broad reach. Instead, the point was to let them know that fellow scientists exist and can be a great source for accurate scientific information.

Nye responded to the hashtag, and even took the time to retweet and reply to his favorite posts.

Bill Nye Response to Hashtag Bill Nye Response 2 Bill Nye Response 1

Overall, the hashtag was a huge success, brought awareness and engaged scientific topics. But more than that, it shows how responsive and positive the scientific community can be. Some news articles noted that the campaign was “trolling in the politest way possible.”

“The scientific community on Twitter is really welcoming,” Decker said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a first year science student or an endowed professor. People don’t treat you any differently.”

And an online presence is vital for scientists and their careers. In 2007, BioInformatics LLC conducted a survey of 1,510 scientists with regard to how they used social media. They found:

  • 77% of life scientists participated in some type of social media
  • 50% viewed blogs, discussion groups, online communities, and social networking as beneficial to sharing ideas with colleagues
  • 85% saw social media affecting their decision-making

For junior scientists or researchers who are just getting started, Decker has some advice.

“Tweeting out at conferences is a good way to practice taking in an idea and getting it back out there in written form,” Decker said. “Instead of taking notes, tweet out what you would have written down.”

#BillMeetScienceTwitter also helped bridge the gap between scientists and the public. Ludwick said that this hashtag helped flip the public perception that scientists are only old men in lab coats on its head.

“People were saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to show my daughter this and inspire her,’” Ludwick said.

Ludwick also thinks that, in general, social media makes him better at communicating science to the public.

“Twitter is a great way to break things down and stop using scientific jargon,” he said. “I think it has helped me personally and it’s great practice.”

Decker agrees with Ludwick’s assessment.

“The first few months on the job it felt like I was back in Spanish class,” he joked. “I was taking the science jargon and doing mental gymnastics to translate it into the language a lay person would understand. But, now I’m fluent in both!”

So, think twice the next time you consider social media to be a waste of time. Whether it’s a hashtag that brings issues to the attention of science celebrities, platforms that connect scientists at a global level or posts that make research more accessible, social media has done a pretty cool job of advancing science.

The Necessity of Fungi

Graduate Researcher Sarah Unruh explores the essential role of fungi in orchid germination

Sarah Unruh

Graduate Researcher Sarah Unruh | photo by Emily Kummerfeld, Bond LSC

By Emily Kummerfeld | Bond LSC

The blooms of orchids are unmistakably beautiful, and how they reproduce has fascinated biologists for centuries.

But, orchids might not even exist if not for the help of fungus. Up to 30,000 species of orchids require the intervention of fungi since their seeds do not contain the necessary nutrients to sprout.

Sarah Unruh, a fifth-year biological sciences PhD student in the lab of Bond LSC’s Chris Pires, seeks to discover and record the specific types of fungi utilized by many orchid species. By studying their specific genetic expressions, she hopes to uncover what allows these fungi to interact with orchids in this way, how these fungi are related to each other and what genes each organism is expressing with and without each other.

Blooming orchid

A blooming orchid in the Tucker greenhouse. Although this orchid grows in a pot, like most species of orchid it is an epiphyte and naturally grows on tree branches. | photo by Emily Kummerfeld, Bond LSC

“The main question for me is, what is the nature of this relationship? Is it more mutualistic or parasitic? You don’t often get something for nothing, so why is the fungus participating in this relationship? Most fungi that live in plant roots receive carbon from the plant. Orchid fungi are doing the opposite and that is weird. I want to know how this relationship works,” Unruh says.

Unruh first studied orchid evolution and how each orchid species related to each other genetically. “My assumptions of what a plant was were so violated by orchids and it still fascinates me! So many orchid species grow on trees, many don’t have leaves, some species never even turn green or photosynthesize.”

This focus soon evolved into her interest in the relationship between orchid plants and fungi. Fungi are neither plants nor animals, and have their own branch on the eukaryotic family tree. They are nonetheless essential to plant biology, “eighty percent of plant species have beneficial fungi in their roots,” says Unruh.

Many orchids are technically classified as epiphytes, which means they grow on the surface of another plant and get all their food and water needs from the air, rain and what accumulates nearby. That doesn’t leave a lot of extra nutrients to put into seeds, which typically need the store of food to sprout and grow its first leaves.

Germinating orchids seeds

Germinating orchids seeds. A small mass of fungus is placed in the Petri dish to assist in germination. | photo by Emily Kummerfeld, Bond LSC

That’s where fungi come into play. Some types of fungi can even germinate several species of orchids, and studying the DNA sequences of these fungi could be vital in the future for endemic endangered orchids and their associated fungi. “I’ve always been interested in relationships between organisms or symbioses,” says Unruh, “the fact that orchid seeds need fungi to survive was too weird not to research.”

"Super Fungus"

Tulasnella calospora, nicknamed the “Super Fungus”. This type of fungus can germinate several species of orchids. | photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

But the process of studying fungi DNA is not a simple one.

“In order to look at their genomes, I need to grow a lot of fungi and then grind it up and add certain substances to isolate only the DNA. I send this DNA to a facility called the Joint Genome Institute where they send it through a machine that spits out a file with a list of lots of small pieces of the genome – like puzzle pieces. I then use computer programs to put the pieces together and try to assign a function to each gene.”

So, the established relationship between fungus and seed helps the orchid, but it’s not known what the fungus is getting out of this arrangement. One idea, based on recent published research, is the fungi receives a certain form of nitrogen from the orchid seeds. Another experiment Unruh is working on is growing the orchid seeds by themselves through special media, growing the fungus by itself, or growing them together. She then measures the gene expression to see if there are big differences when the plant or fungus is alone or together. “This will help answer my question of how mutually beneficial this association is,” says Unruh.

The data collected from this research will form the bulk of her PhD thesis. However, there remains many questions regarding the relationship between orchids and fungus that Unruh would like to explore in the future, such as which fungi are best for reintroducing endangered orchid species or what other roles fungi play in their environment. “I foresee fungi, especially plant and fungal relationships, becoming the focus of more and more research in the future.”

In 2014, Unruh received a three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship. More recently, she has received a grant from the Joint Genome Institute to sequence 15 full genomes of orchid fungi.

Kwaku Tawiah #IAmScience

Kwaku Tawiah

Kwaku Tawiah, a Ph. D candidate in biochemistry at MU, stands near his lab station in the Burke Lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Mary Jane Rogers, Bond LSC

By Mary Jane Rogers | Bond LSC

“#IAmScience because of where I come from. If you look at Africa, we have some of the most dangerous infectious diseases in the world…When you see these diseases first-hand and the havoc they cause, you want to solve the problem. People with different perspectives will make a difference in medicine.”

Growing up in Ghana gave Kwaku Tawiah a different outlook on medicine. Tawiah works in Donald Burke’s lab in the Bond LSC, and spends much of his time engineering nucleic acids and analyzing cell cultures. He hopes his research will help with early diagnosis of diseases, and wants to eventually bring it back to Ghana. He has a strong relationship with the other researchers and scientists in the Burke lab.

“In Bond LSC, and especially in my lab, it’s the people that matter,” said Tawiah. “When I came here, I knew nothing. I started with the basics and the people in my lab were patient enough to teach me the tools and skills that I needed. The people here are what keep me going.”

Tawiah said that his parents had a direct influence on both his education and career choices. Both his parents were teachers, so they were able to see his strengths and weaknesses, and saw that he was well suited for science. He completed his undergraduate degree at Lindenwood University in 2012 and is currently in his third year as a Ph.D candidate in biochemistry at MU.

For young scientists just starting off, Tawiah believes that you must be willing to learn and listen to the people around you.

“It doesn’t matter what you know, because if you’re humble you will do all right,” said Tawiah. “It’s not about what you know, but what you’re capable of knowing. If you’re not willing to learn, it’s going to be hard. Having a harmonious relationship with the people around you is key to learning.”

Shannon King #IAmScience

Shannon King

Shannon King, a Ph.D candidate in the Biochemistry department at MU. She works in Scott Peck’s lab at Bond LSC. | Photo by Mary Jane Rogers, Bond LSC.

By Mary Jane Rogers | Bond LSC

“#IAmScience because I plan to use my career to help develop agricultural innovations for the hard-working farmer.”

Most of Shannon King’s support system – her friends, grandparents, and boyfriend – are all farmers. They’re her inspiration and part of the reason her career goal is to use science to help farmers.

She’s currently a Ph.D candidate in the Biochemistry department at MU and works in Scott Peck’s lab at Bond Life Sciences Center. She’s also part of a $4.2 million grant the MU Interdisciplinary Plant Group received to fund crop research.

“I went into science because I wanted to help farmers,” King said. “With this grant, I get to go out into the field every day and be a ‘fake farmer,’ as I call it. And then I get to go into the lab and look at the science of it all. This grant gives me an everyday reminder of whom I get to help with my research and a whole new appreciation for science.”

The official name of the project is “Physiological Genomics of Maize Nodal Root Growth under Drought.” Its goal is to develop drought-tolerant corn varieties that make efficient use of available water. The project is interdisciplinary in nature and includes individuals from MU’s College of Arts and Science, School of Medicine, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, and School of Journalism. King said part of the fun of this grant is working with her team when things go wrong.

“None of us are engineers, but we’ve been doing a lot of re-engineering of our system to make things run smoothly. It’s rewarding to have all of us come together and try and make this project work.”

A step into summer research

Jacqueline Ihnat

Jacqueline Ihnat, one of the 12 Cherng Summer Scholars, outside Dr. Cornelison’s lab at the Bond Life Sciences Center.

Sometimes the most learning occurs outside of the classroom.

For Jacqueline Ihnat, an opportunity to pursue research at the Bond Life Sciences Center this summer will give her that chance. She recently became one of 12 Cherng Summer Scholars, a full-time, ten-week program within the Honors College at MU.

“Doing research helps keep me focused on the bigger picture,” Ihnat said. “Sometimes in class we learn things that don’t seem entirely relevant or useful, but being part of a research lab allows me to apply some of the knowledge that I gain in the classroom.  It’s a daily reminder of why I’m learning what I am.”

Jacqueline Ihnat’s passion for science started in high school. Her high school biology teacher ignited that love by teaching her how to struggle through difficult problems and concepts. Now, Ihnat is an MU pre-med student with a major in business management and a minor in Spanish.

Since Ihnat is fascinated with cells and how our bodies function, she’ll be studying the role of specialized stem cells in muscle regeneration and how they interact with muscle fibers — specifically the role of Eph-A3, a type of cell-surface receptor. This project will take place in the lab of Dawn Cornelison, a Bond LSC biologist who will be mentoring Ihnat this summer.

DSC_3313.jpg

Jacqueline Ihnat as she pipettes samples in Dr. Cornelison’s lab in Bond LSC. | photo by Mary Jane Rogers, Bond LSC

Each muscle in the body is unique in its length, fiber organization and fiber type patterning, so Ihnat hopes to explore why two types of muscle — fast and slow twitch muscle — develop and regenerate to maintain each specific muscle fiber-type composition.

When a muscle is damaged from exercise or injury, a muscle’s stem cells, or “satellite cells,” will multiply, move towards the injury and form new muscle, replacing the damaged fiber. There is no research that determines if “fast” satellite cells create fast fibers and if “slow” satellite cells create slow fibers, and Ihnat hopes to tackle that question this summer. This kind of research gives scientists a deeper understanding of degenerative muscle diseases such as ALS, which could lead to more effective treatments and therapies.

The Cherng Summer Scholars program is supported by a gift from Andrew and Peggy Cherng and the Panda Charitable Foundation. The Cherng’s are the founders of Panda Express, a well-known restaurant chain. These scholarships support individually designed theoretical research, applied research or artistry projects under the mentorship of an MU faculty member.

For young scientists who are just starting to conduct research and struggling to feel successful, Ihnat has a few words of motivation.

“My high school biology teacher always said that research is 30 years of frustration and disappointment followed by 30 seconds of elation when you finally make a breakthrough,” she said. “Patience is key.”

Jacqueline Ihnat #IAmScience

Jacqueline Ihnat

Jacqueline Ihnat, one of the 12 Cherg Summer Scholars chosen from within the Honors College at MU in 2017. | Photo by Mary Jane Rogers, Bond LSC

By Mary Jane Rogers | Bond LSC

“#IAmScience because I am able to apply what I learn in the classroom to research that makes progress towards a better future.”

Jacqueline Ihnat was recently selected as one of the 12 Cherng Summer Scholars within the Honors College at the University of Missouri. This scholarship provides her with $8,000 to fund her summer research. She’s fascinated with cells and how our bodies function, so this summer she’s studying the role of specialized stem cells in muscle regeneration and how they interact with muscle fibers—specifically the role of Eph-A3, a type of cell-surface receptor. Her faculty mentor for this project is Dawn Cornelison, an investigator in MU’s Bond Life Sciences Center.

“Doing research helps keep me focused on the bigger picture,” Ihnat said.

“Sometimes in class we learn things that don’t seem entirely relevant or useful, but being part of a research lab allows me to apply some of the knowledge that I gain in the classroom. It’s a daily reminder of why I’m learning what I am.”

The evolution of a corn geneticist

By Jennifer Lu |Bond LSC

Paula McSteen

Bond LSC Biologist Paula McSteen | photo by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC

When developmental plant geneticist Paula McSteen thinks about the specimens she studies, one word comes to mind: potential.

She thought it as she stood in the midst of the first corn field she ever planted as a post-doctoral fellow in corn genetics.

She thinks it as she counts kernels from corn crosses that will be sent to Hawaii, a hotspot for corn geneticists looking to add a second harvest to their research year.

And she sees it in the students she mentors as a professor of biological sciences at MU and a researcher at the Bond Life Sciences Center.

Embracing the corn

McSteen entered the field of corn genetics 21 years ago, as a post-doctoral fellow in Berkeley.

“What’s really amazing is that when you plant a field of corn, the field is just bare,” McSteen says.

“A few weeks later, you come back and your plants are this high,” she says, gesturing with her hands. “And a few weeks later, they’re this high. And a few weeks later, they’re massive and it’s all just coming from nothing. The instructions are there in the seeds, but otherwise the plant is taking nutrients and water from the soil and using the air and sun to generate sugar for growing. It’s amazing. You come back and you’ve got this whole field of corn.”

During her first corn season, McSteen remembers being surrounded as far as the eye can see by corn as tall as people. “I feel like that’s one reason why people get into corn. You’re not staring down into a microscope, you’re embracing it. It’s right there in front of you.”

The feeling hasn’t gone away.

“When I see my plants,” McSteen says, “I’m excited about what’s going on with them. What could be happening here? What’s the meaning of these results?”

McSteen, who is Irish, grew up far removed from the sunny cornfields she works in. As a child in Dublin, she wasn’t particular outdoorsy. When her family went camping by the sea over the summer holidays, McSteen spent most of her time reading books. Her favorite subject in school was science. By the time she sat for her high school leaving exam, her classes were mainly in geography, science or math.

“I’ve always been fascinated with genetics,” McSteen says. Ever since she learned about Punnett squares in high school, its puzzle-like quality has appealed to her. “I just loved that you could figure out what the prediction could be from a certain cross.”

She applied and was accepted to her top choice university, Trinity College Dublin, where she studied genetics. She went on to pursue a PhD in Norwich, England studying how snapdragons make flowers.

When it came time for her to do her post-doc, she had the choice to work on Arabidopsis, a popular plant model, or maize, a crop with many opportunities for research funding. She chose the latter. The decision changed the course of her career, from her research focus to her country of residence.

Corn brought her to California, Pennsylvania and then the University of Missouri, which has a long history of corn genetics.

Pollen

Researchers cross-pollinate corn by pouring pollen collected from the tassel over the ear. | Photograph by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC

Everything we do starts with mutants

McSteen studies a part of corn plants called the meristem, which is filled with stem cells that become the reproductive organs of the plant: the tassel and the ears.

The tassel, where pollen is produced, is found at the top of the cornstalk, while the ears, which are the female reproductive organs, jut out from the sides. When and how they form depend on a growth hormone called auxin.

To understand auxin regulation, McSteen begins every summer with a field full of mutants. Each kernel contains a mutation, but it’s impossible to tell at first what is causing the mutation.

“To me, every single mutant is just potential. You can’t wait to find out what is mutated. You never know what you’re going to end up with.”

McSteen is interested in mutations that affect the tassels or ears. These plants produce ears with fewer kernels or tassels with fewer branches. Or they fail to make ears or tassels altogether. The defects are outward signs of problems in meristem development, and hint at disruptions to genes that are involved in how auxin is made, transported or perceived by the plant.

Once a mutant is identified, McSteen works backwards to find out which gene is causing the mutation, and where it is located on the chromosome. To date, her group has identified multiple genes related to auxin-mediated development, as well as two genes that affect the uptake or synthesis of essential nutrients.

A third project revolves around a strain of corn that produces half as many kernels as regular corn, causing it to look like grains such as rice or wheat. McSteen thinks that if they can understand what’s causing the shortfall in kernel development, it may be possible to engineer grains like rice and wheat to “double kernel” the way that corn does.

Ultimately, studying these genes help corn researchers to better understand plant development and improve yield.

Eden Johnson

Graduate student Eden Johnson photographs a mutant that has produced half as many rows of kernels. | Photograph by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC

You always love the organism

To keep all their experiments going, the McSteen lab plants three acres of corn every summer. Each acre contains 750 rows; each row holds 30 plants.

With the aid of a hand held planter, they drop 67,500 kernels into the soil. Then they do what McSteen calls a lopsided “planter’s shuffle” to stamp the soil down so that it covers every kernel.

“You can do a whole acre of corn in a few hours,” she said. “It’s hard work. You’re sore afterwards.”

During Missouri summers, temperatures can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It feels even hotter when it rains. The ground is either hard as a rock before it rains or so muddy after it rains that researchers have to take care not to wrench their ankles in the thick muck.

McSteen has worked on corn for so long that she’s developed severe allergies to corn pollen. It’s not uncommon among corn researchers, but her allergies prevent her from taking part in the pollination step that takes place at the height of summer.

“You’re out there in 100-degree heat getting the job done,” she says. “It’s a real bonding experience for the lab.”

To pollinate the corn, they slip paper bags over the ears and tassel of their plants. Covering the ears prevents accidental fertilization of the ears from stray pollen blown about by the wind. The bag over the tassel allows researchers to collect the yellow powder that will be used for controlled pollination.

“The next day, you bang the tassel and the pollen falls out into the bag,” McSteen says. “Then you gather it all up and you pour it on the ear.” It’s possible to pollinate about 100 plants in an hour, but you have to start early and work quickly, McSteen says. Otherwise, all the pollen is dead by noon.

McSteen’s allergies prevent her from shelling corn as well, but she’s on deck for planting and harvest time and all the other stages in between.

“If you’re a corn geneticist, you’re out there working with the plants. You always love the organism.”

Paula McSteen

Paula McSteen labels the envelope of kernels from a corn cross that will be grown in Hawaii. | Photograph by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC

A Collaborative Community

“To be a corn geneticist, you have to be very organized and plan ahead,” McSteen says. Because it takes a long time to grow several generations of corn, she’s only beginning to see the results of experiments she started years ago.

As a way to increase productivity, corn researchers send their seeds to warm places such as Mexico, Chile or Hawaii that can accommodate a winter harvest.

In the lab, McSteen chooses kernels from carefully selected mutants to ship to an island in Hawaii. There, a company will plant and harvest the corn for her, but she usually sends two of her researchers down to take care of the pollinations themselves.

McSteen counts out thirteen yellow kernels that are shiny and mold-free. “Potential,” she says, as she slips the seeds in an envelope with the cross information labeled on the front.

A three week trip to Hawaii in the winter isn’t as exotic as it sounds, says Eden Johnson, a third year graduate student in McSteen’s lab. On the island, the beaches are rocky and full of riptides. “It is literally cornfields, one diner and a stop sign. The whole island exists for corn.”

“When you’re down there in Hawaii, you hang out with the other researchers,” McSteen says. “If their field is peaking and your field is not, then you’ll go help.”

In her experience, the corn community tends to be collaborative rather than competitive. She suspects it’s because everyone recognizes that corn takes a long time to grow.

“If you find out you’re working on similar things, you’ll work together, divide the work and do it together,” McSteen says. Researchers don’t race each other to be the first one to publish. “They won’t do that because they have respect for how long it takes to grow the corn.”

Katy Gurthrie

Katy Gurthrie removes a bag used to collect pollen from the tassel. | Photograph by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC

Growing careers alongside corn

McSteen is as serious about mentorship as she is about corn. “It’s part of the job of being a professor”.

According to Katy Guthrie, a second year graduate student in the lab, McSteen takes a Goldilocks approach to managing her students.

Neither too hands on or too hands off, “it’s exactly what I need,” Guthrie says. “She’s kind of like my academic parent for the next five years.”

Back at Penn State, McSteen supervised a PhD student who was talented writer. “I noticed this and gave her opportunities to write.” McSteen introduced her to a science writer and encouraged her to spend a summer writing for a science publication. “Now she works for the National Academy of Sciences. I’m really proud of her, and I feel like she’ll have a big impact communicating science to the public.”

A post-doc wanted to do go into teaching, so McSteen invited her to co-teach her class. Her post-doc went on to become a teaching professor at Mizzou. Another student turned her research experience in mapping mutants in corn into a successful career at a corn company.

“I want to enable the people in my lab to reach their full potential,” McSteen says. “I always try to figure out what they want to do in the future and try and facilitate that.”