Chemical persuasion

Scientists prove parasite mimics key plant peptide to feed off roots
By Roger Meissen | Bond LSC

A nematode (the oblong object on the upper left) activates the vascular stem cell pathway in the developing nematode feeding site (syncytium) on a plant root. | contributed by Melissa Mitchum

A nematode (the oblong object on the left) activates the vascular stem cell pathway in the developing nematode feeding site (syncytium) on a plant root. | photo by Xiaoli Guo, MU post-doctoral research associate

When it comes to nematodes, unraveling the root of the issue is complicated.

These tiny parasites siphon off the nutrients from the roots of important crops like soybeans, and scientists keep uncovering more about how they accomplish this task.

Research from the lab of Bond LSC’s Melissa Mitchum recently pinpointed a new way nematodes take over root cells.

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Melissa Mitchum | photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

“In a normal plant, the plant sends different chemical signals to form different types of structures for a plant. One of those structures is the xylem for nutrient flow,” said Mitchum, an associate professor in the Division of Plant Sciences at MU. “Plant researchers discovered a peptide signal for vascular stem cells several years ago, but this is the first time anyone has proven that a nematode is also secreting chemical mimics to keep these stem cells from changing into the plant structures they normally would.”

Stem cells? Xylem? Chemical mimics?

Let’s unpack what’s going on.

First, all plants contain stem cells. These are cells with unbridled potential and are at the growth centers in a plant. Think the tips of shoots and roots. With the right urging, plant stem cells can turn into many different types of cells.

That influence often comes in the form of chemicals. These chemicals are typically made inside the plant and when stem cells are exposed to them at the right time, they turn certain genes either on or off that in turn start a transformation of these cells into more specialized organs.

Want a leaf? Expose a stem cell to a particular combination of chemicals. Need a root? Flood it with a different concoction of peptides. The xylem — the dead cells that pipe water and nutrients up and down the plant — requires a particular type of peptide that connects with just the right receptor to start the process.

But for a nematode, the plan is to hijack the plant’s plan and make plant cells feed it. This microscopic worm attaches itself to a root and uses a needle-like mouthpiece to inject spit into a single root cell. That spit contains chemical signals of its own engineered to look like plant signals. In this case, these chemicals — B-type CLE peptides — and their purpose are just being discovered by Mitchum’s lab.

“Now a nematode doesn’t want to turn its feeding site into xylem because these are dead cells it can’t use, so they may be tapping into part of the pathway required to maintain the stems cells while suppressing xylem differentiation to form a structure that serves as a nutrient sink,” Mitchum said. “To me that’s really cool.”

This means these cells are free to serve the nematode. Many of their cell walls dissolve to create a large nutrient storage container for the nematode and some create finger-like cell wall ingrowths that increase the take up of food being piped through the roots. For a nematode, that’s a lifetime of meals for it while it sits immobile, just eating.

But how did scientists figure out and test that this nematode’s chemical was the cause?

Using next generation sequencing technologies that were previously unavailable, Michael Gardner, a graduate research assistant, and Jianying Wang, a senior research associate in Mitchum’s lab, compared the pieces of the plant and nematode genome and found nearly identical peptides in both — B-type CLE peptides.

“Everything is faster, more sensitive and we can detect things that had gone undetected through these technological advances that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” Mitchum said.

To test their theory, Xiaoli Guo, postdoctoral researcher and first author of the study in Mitchum’s lab synthesized the B-type CLE nematode peptide and applied it to vascular stem cells of the model plant Arabidopsis. They found that the nematode peptides triggered a growth response in much the same way as the plants own peptides affected development.

They used mutant Arabidopsis plants engineered to not be affected as much by this peptide to confirm their findings.

“We knocked out genes in the plant to turn off this pathway, and that caused the nematode’s feeding cell to be compromised. That’s why you see reduced development of the nematode on the plants.”

This all matters because these tiny nematodes cost U.S. farmers billions every year in lost yields from soybeans, and similar nematodes affect sugar beets, potatoes, corn and other crops.

While this discovery is just a piece of a puzzle, these pieces hopefully will come together to build better crops.

“You have to know what is happening before you can intervene,” Mitchum said. “Now our biggest hurdle is to figure out how to not compromise plant growth while blocking only the nematode’s version of this peptide.”

Mitchum is a Bond LSC investigator and an associate professor of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. The study Identification of cyst nematode B-type CLE peptides and modulation of the vascular stem cell pathway for feeding cell formation” recently was published by the journal PLOS Pathogens in February 2017.

Growing a more nourishing future

Nga Nguyen

Nga Nguyen, a doctoral candidate in MU’s Division of Plant Sciences, observes samples of a model plant species, Arabidopsis thaliana, in the Mendoza-Cózatl lab at Bond Life Sciences Center on Feb. 7, 2017. | photo by Eleanor C. Hasenbeck, Bond LSC

Nga Nguyen hopes to apply her research to increase nutrient contents in crop plants
By Eleanor C. Hasenbeck | Bond LSC

Plants smell better than animals, at least to Nga Nguyen. That’s one reason why she decided to study them.

“In my undergrad, I studied horticulture,” Nguyen said. “For that you don’t really learn the inside mechanisms of plants, so I decided besides knowing the cultivation techniques, I’d like to also learn about the molecular biology.”

As a fifth year doctoral candidate in the Mendoza-Cózatl lab at Bond Life Sciences Center, she hopes to combine her undergraduate background with her present research in the microbiology of plants to improve the crops of the future.

Nguyen studies how transporter proteins move micronutrients like iron through plants. By understanding how plants move these nutrients in model plants, researchers hope to apply the same understanding and techniques to crops like soy and common beans. Increasing the micronutrient content of these crops could be a useful tool in combatting nutrient deficiencies in areas where people don’t have access to meat and dairy.

But Nguyen says the benefits of studying plants don’t end there. “I hope people pay attention to plant research and study,” Nguyen said.  “If you think about it, it’s not just our food, but our clothing and the materials we use.”

Beginning of a journey

By Jinghong Chen | Bond Life Sciences Center

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Emily Million, a prospective biochemistry graduate student from Truman State University and Kevin Muñoz-Forti of University of Puerto Rico’s Pontifical Catholic University talk at the Graduate Life Sciences Joint Recruitment Weekend on February 4 after looking at posters about many different research programs and projects. | Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

Nick Dietz was not certain where to start his research journey this time last year.

But the atmosphere during a recruitment weekend nearly a year ago convinced him to pick MU over three other offers of admission. He is now a first-year plant sciences Ph.D. graduate student and life sciences fellow at MU.

“It is crucially important for [prospective] graduate students to feel they are going to feel like home, and Mizzou just knocked out that part with the recruitment weekend,” said Dietz.

The Graduate Life Sciences Joint Recruitment Weekend, an annual event since 2010, builds a two-way street between MU faculties and prospective graduate students and helps them to determine whether MU is the place for them to continue their education.

This year, about 35 prospective students with different academic backgrounds participated in the recruitment event.

“Up to this point, the departments only know these [prospective] students on paper,” said Debbie Allen, coordinator of Graduate Initiatives. “But this is an chance for the faculty and staff to meet them in person to get a feel that whether they are going to be a good fit for our program.”

Conversely, the prospective students also gain deeper understanding of MU via tours around the campus and the laboratories, one-on-one interviews with potential advisors and interdisciplinary poster sessions. The event combines recruiting efforts from the division of Biochemistry, Plant Sciences, Molecular Pathogenesis and Therapeutics graduate program, Genetics Area program, MU Information Institute, the Interdisciplinary Plant Group and Life Sciences Fellowship Program.

More than 100 faculty, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows joined the recruitment weekend. They play a valuable role in interacting with the prospective students, as they are the ones who are in the midst of MU life.

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Nick Dietz, a freshman plant sciences graduate student, volunteered as a student ambassador during the the annual Graduate Life Sciences Joint Recruitment Weekend Saturday, Feb. 4. Dietz said last year’s event clinched his decision to attend MU and made him want to help prospective students make their decisions on where to attend. | photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

Dietz joined that effort as a student ambassador. He toured Matthew Murphy, an Illinois College graduate, around the campus and shuttled him to different interviews.

Murphy drove from St. Louis for the recruitment weekend. With a major in biology and a minor in mathematics, he wishes to submerge himself into plant sciences.

During his gap year at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center after graduation, Murphy learned about the division of Plant Sciences, which is one of the MU’s strongest programs. That eventually got him pumped up to apply for MU.

The recruitment weekend energized him further.

“Every graduate student I have talked to is really helpful and honest,” said Murphy. “They are all saying… how thankful they are to pick Mizzou.”

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Lloyd Sumner, professor of biochemistry and director of MU’s Metabolomics Center in Bond LSC, talks with a prospective graduate student Saturday, Feb. 4, during the annual Graduate Life Sciences Joint Recruitment Weekend. | photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

Lloyd Sumner, an MU professor of biochemistry, is expecting new students to join his lab. He had lunch and one-on-one meetings with the 11 prospective students invited by the biochemistry department, and toured them around his lab to showcase the instrumental resources.

“These are educated young adults with often very grand ideas. It is inspiring to visit with them and to be part of their future goals and careers,” Sumner said.

After six months rotating between different labs, Dietz has not yet decided which research route he will take yet. Nevertheless, he remains certain of one thing: he is enjoying the life here.

“It is a really warm atmosphere,” said Dietz. “I don’t feel I am being used as a labor. Professors actually want me to do well and get a good education.”

A plant remedy

Agroforestry symposium

Rob Riedel from Wild Ozark Ginseng Farm introduces their products at the agroforestry symposium on Jan. 26th, 2017 | photo by Jinghong Chen, Bond LSC

MU Center for Agroforestry symposium talks medicinal plants
By Jinghong Chen | Bond LSC

Researchers, landowners and entrepreneurs converged at Bond Life Sciences Center to discuss current developments and topics in medicinal plants and agroforestry at the eighth UMCA Agroforestry Symposium. This daylong annual event, hosted by the Center for Agroforestry, took place on Thursday, Jan. 26.

People have been using medicinal plants as natural remedies and medicines for thousands of years all over the world. The global market of medicinal plants industry is huge.

“It is going to approach nearly $115 billion by 2020,” said Dr. Shibu Jose, director of MU Center for Agroforestry.

The university practices research projects on how to grow medicinal plants in a sustainable manner and how to harvest and process them, according to Dr. Jose.

Tom Newmark

Keynote speaker Tom Newmark talks about medicinal plants at the agroforestry symposium on Jan. 26th, 2017 | photo by Jinghong Chen, Bond LSC

Tim Newmark of the American Botanical Council said climate change and the loss of soil are two main threats to herb plants. His keynote speech is on how to use regenerative practices in medicinal plants and agroforestry to positively impact the environment. A recent White House report wrote that without cooperated actions, the United of States will run out of the topsoil by the end of this century.

“We are eating our environment,” said Newmark.

Four main destructive forces leading to the dramatic loss of soil are excessive tilling, monoculture, synthetic nitrogen fertilization and pesticides.

Newmark did a side-by-side test in his farm in Costa Rica during the worst drought in the country. He implanted cassava in two fields under identical conditions and applied the best practice of conventional agrochemical agriculture and regenerative practice, respectively.

When the drought happened with six weeks of no rain in the rainforest, only the crop in conventional field was a complete failure.

Newmark said the next trend in the plants industry is agriculture focusing on regenerative plant soil.

Seven other speakers also presented on medicinal plants and included:

Dr. Jim Chamberlain, from US Forest Service, on forest management and medicinal plants

Dr. Susan Leopold, from United Plant Savers, on the conservation of medicinal plants

Dr. Jed W. Fahey, from Johns Hopkins University, on researches on moringa oleifera

Dr. Lloyd Sumner, from the University of Missouri, on the metabolomics opportunities and application in pecan

Dr. Chung-Ho Lin, from the University of Missouri, on how to identify value-added compounds from waste plant materials

Dr. Bill Folk, from University of Missouri, on International partnerships in medicinal plants

Steven Foster, an author and photographer, on field guide on medicinal plants and herbs

The agroforestry symposium is held annually with different themes. It has focused on climate change and pollinators, previously.

Read more here about the Agroforestry Symposium on the Center for Agroforestry website.

Cornelison receives highest honor from White House

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It feels good to get recognition, especially when it comes from the White House.

This week D Cornelison, a Bond Life Sciences Center researcher and associate professor of biological sciences found out she will receive a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The award is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. She joins 102 researchers this year selected by the White House to receive this prestigious award.

This is a first for Missouri as a state as well as MU, making her the only scientist based in Missouri to ever be selected. Cornelison was nominated by her program officer at the National Institutes of Health, which funds her work on satellite cells.

Read more here from Melody Kroll on the Division of Biological Sciences website.

If you’d rather hear about it from her mouth, listen to Cornelison’s interview on KFRU Wednesday morning.

Live long and prosper: healthy mitochondria, healthy motor neurons?

Chris Lorson

Chris Lorson (front) and Mark Hannink (back) collaborate to study the role of mitochondria in motor neuron health, particularly in relation to spinal muscular atrophy, a neuromuscular disorder | photo by Jen Lu, Bond LSC

Chris Lorson, a professor of veterinary pathobiology, and Mark Hannink, a professor of biochemistry, want to find a new way to help motor neurons live a long and healthy life. Their question: what’s the relationship between motor neuron sruvival and a cellular component called mitochondria?

The two researchers at the Bond Life Sciences Center were awarded preliminary funding from the Bond LSC to pursue this question. Their findings could lead to new targets for therapies to treat a type of muscular dystrophy called spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA.

Spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease characterized by the death of motor neurons in the spinal cord, is caused by a mutation in the Survival Motor Neuron 1, or SMN1, gene. Patients with SMA develop muscle weakness and deterioration that spread inwards from the hands and feet, which progresses to interfere with mobility and breathing. The severity of symptoms and time of onset depend on how well a related gene is able to compensate for the lack of SMN1. As a result, treatment strategies usually focus on improving the activation of SMN1’s back-up gene.

Hannink and Lorson, however, are interested in a different pathway that is related to mitochondria dsyfunction.

Mitochondria are like the cell’s battery packs. Produced in the cell body, mitochondria migrate to the other end of the motor neuron to provide the energy to send electrochemical signals to recipient muscles and nerves. When mitochondria break down, the cell packs them into vacuoles that return to the cell body for recycling or removal.

“I saw a report that said that in SMA, there’s evidence for dysfunctional mitochondria in spinal motor neuron atrophy,” Hannink said. “My lab knows something about how mitochondria respond to stress.”

“There’s a lot of information out there that hints at it,” Lorson, an expert in SMA, said. “A number of the same responses you see in the stress pathway are also activated in neurodegeneration.”

To test their hypothesis, Hannink and Lorson plan to make motor neurons from pluripotent stem cells taken from people with and without SMA, and compare mitochondrial function and cell survival between the two groups. Then, they will test if a number of different genes that are known to be important for mitochondrial function will affect motor neuron health in both SMA and non-SMA derived cells.

“If you look at the tool chest of SMA therapeutics right now,” Lorson said, “you have a number of very obvious targets.”

Most approaches aim to boost the performance of the SMN or its back-up gene, but there are also options like neuroprotectants and skeletal muscle activators. Molecules that maintain healthy mitochondrial function could be another possibility.

“These are things that don’t worry about the state of the SMN gene and are targeting something in addition to, supplemental to or as an alternative to SMN,” Lorson said. “And that’s where this project would fall.”

This seed funding is one of seven awarded this year at the Bond Life Sciences Center. These awards, which range from $40,000 to $100,000 in funding, foster inter-laboratory collaboration and make possible the development of pilot projects.

Mizzou Epigenetics 2016

Jean-Pierre Issa

Kenote speaker Dr. Jean-Pierre Issa talks about epigentic drift at the epigenetics symposium on Nov. 9th, 2016 | photo by Jen Lu, Bond LSC

Five faculty speakers from five different universities, along with two trainees selected based on the merits of their poster abstracts, presented on current topics in epigenetics. The daylong symposium, titled Mizzou Epigenetics, took place on Wednesday, Nov. 9 at the Bond Life Sciences Center.

Dr. Jean-Pierre Issa of Temple University, the keynote speaker, said he was a stickler for the definition of classical epigenetics: stable, long-term changes in gene expression. Textbook examples of epigenetics include X-inactivation, an irreversible process that happens at the beginning of gestation, and imprinting, where certain genes are not expressed based on their parental origins.

DNA methylation is one mechanism that cells use to control whether genes are activated. The presence of methyl tags—single carbons bonded to three hydrogen atoms—act like “off” switches when attached to a region of the gene called the promoter.

Enzymes that add or remove tags are normally busiest during the embryonic development. Cancer is the exception to the rule. According to Issa, cancer presents a “chaotic picture” where methyl tags get added to regions where they don’t belong, and removed from regions where they ought to be, resulting in epigenetic shift.

The greater the epigenetic shift, it seems, the greater the age of the cell. Regardless of whether you look at mice, monkeys or humans, Issa said, from a methylation perspective, “cancers look like very very very old cells.”

He also drew connections between epigenetic shift and other conditions related to aging. For example, specimens with chronic inflammation, infection or the introduction of a new microbiome to a germ-free body tended to show a higher than average amount of epigenetic shift as their cells age. Meanwhile, mice and monkeys who were exposed to calorie restriction tended to have lower amounts of epigenetic shift over time.

Epigenetics symposium

Poster session from the epigenetics symposium held Nov. 9th, 2016 | photo by Jen Lu, Bond LSC

Other speakers who presented on epigenetics included:

  • Dr. Rick Pilsner, from the University of Massachusetts, on how paternal exposure to plasticizers affect sperm DNA methylation
  • Dr. Bob Schmitz, from the University of Georgia, on the identification of mechanisms behind spontaneous epigenetics variation
  • Dr. Zohreh Talebizadeh, from Children’s Mercy Hospital, on the genetics of autism
  • Dr. Andrew Yoo, from Washington University, on microRNA-mediated changes in chromatin during neuronal reprogramming of human fibroblasts

The event was sponsored by Mizzou Advantage, the School of Medicine, the College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources, the Bond Life Sciences Center and the Chancellor’s Distinguished Visitors Program.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The eyes have it

Carisa Petris

Dr. Carisa Petris stands in the McQuinn atrium of Bond Life Science Center. She and Bond LSC researcher Gary Weisman are using funding from a $100,000 Bond LSC grant to study the mechanisms of an auto-immune disease in the lacrimal glands of the eyes. They are hoping treatments for the disease in mice they study could be applied to humans. | photo by Phillip Sitter, Bond LSC

Bond LSC scientist works with MU eye surgeon to help people suffering from autoimmune-disease Sjögren’s syndrome

By Phillip Sitter | Bond LSC

They may not get much respect, but tears and spit are the products of a delicate secretive system that people would pay their respects to in mourning if they discovered that system was dying.

Gary Weisman and Dr. Carisa Petris are working together to help heal the damage caused by such a chronic lack of tears and saliva. The pair recently received a $100,000 Bond Life Sciences Center Grant for Innovative Collaborative Research to allow Bond LSC’s Weisman to partner with Petris, an eye surgeon working at MU Hospital.

They want to study the mechanism by which the auto-immune disease Sjögren’s syndrome cripples the glands of the eyes in mice. By comparing that mechanism to how it works in human eyes, they hope to examine if effective treatments for the mice could in turn help people.

“Dr. Weisman has characterized [Sjögren’s syndrome] in the salivary glands, and then there are similar glands in the eye called the lacrimal glands, and those are the tissues that we’re going to study,” she said of their collaboration.

Sjögren’s attacks the glands in our bodies that produce tears and saliva. Without tears and saliva, people suffer chronic dry mouth and eyes and are more susceptible to infections. Sjögren’s itself can also spread to other parts of the body, including the lungs, kidneys and digestive organs. An estimated four million people in the United States live with the disease, according to the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation.

Much of the grant money will go toward the costs of obtaining and housing new knockout mice for the study. These mice have a disabled, or knocked out, gene that causes them to express a certain trait like the dry eyes and development of Sjögren’s in this case.

“It takes a few weeks to a couple months for the disease to fully manifest itself, so we’ll house those mice for that time, and then of course, we’ll be treating them with the drug, and not with the drug, some for harvesting just the lacrimal glands and [studying] the surface of the eye,” Petris said.

Even though Sjögren’s syndrome and inflammation research are big topics, there’s just no good solution to the problems yet.

“There are a few [eye] drops that are used for Sjögren’s now, and they’re at best helpful, but they don’t cure the disease, so that would be the ultimate goal. They help decrease the inflammation that goes along with it and increase the tear production. The drops are also limited in their longevity too — you can only use them a certain length of time before they tend to not work so well anymore,” Petris said.

Petris referred to one drug that shows promise. The drug or another like it would interrupt the autoimmune response that causes the damaging inflammation that leads to Sjögren’s. It has already shown good results for reducing the symptom of dry mouth in mice, so Petris said she and Weisman will add it to some of the eyes of their mice and see if has any similar effect it reducing dryness there.

 

Gary Weisman was recently recognized for his career studying auto-immune responses with an award at an international conference in Seoul, Republic of Korea. Read more about Sjögren’s syndrome and Weisman’s work here.

This seed funding is one of seven awarded this year at the Bond Life Sciences Center. These awards, which range from $40,000 to $100,000 in funding, foster inter-laboratory collaboration and make possible the development of pilot projects. Read more about another Bond LSC seed funding grant-supported collaborative project here.

“Bucket” actor kicked Hollywood career, has enjoyed life in veterinary medicine

Peter Ostrum

Dr. Peter Ostrum, who once played the character of Charlie Bucket in 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” —also starring the late Gene Wilder — smiles after giving a lecture to an audience at Monsanto Auditorium in Bond LSC. After “Willy Wonka,” Ostrum did not pursue acting further, and went into a career in veterinary medicine. | photo by Phillip Sitter, Bond LSC

Dr. Peter Ostrum spoke at Bond LSC in celebration of World One Health Day

By Phillip Sitter |Bond LSC

The character of Charlie Bucket found his golden ticket to a happy life wrapped in a Willy Wonka chocolate bar. Peter Ostrum, who at the time was just a child actor playing Charlie, later found his in horse pastures.

After playing Charlie in 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” alongside the late Gene Wilder starring in the titular role, Ostrum didn’t pursue acting any further. He spoke about life as a veterinarian Nov. 3 at Monsanto Auditorium in Bond Life Sciences Center.

“People are always curious about what happened to Charlie. Why wasn’t he in any other films? Did he survive Hollywood? I’m relieved to tell you that my life didn’t end up as a trainwreck,” Ostrum said, getting some laughs from the crowd gathered to listen to him speak.

“The film industry just wasn’t for me,” he explained, although he did enjoy working alongside Wilder and co-star Jack Albertson, who played Grandpa Joe. Ostrum said that every day on lunch break during filming in Munich, Germany, Wilder would share a chocolate bar with him.

Back at home in Ohio, Ostrum worked at a stable, and had several positive interactions with veterinarians. He admired the profession, and working with horses specifically. He even went on to be a groomer for the Japanese three-day equestrian event team at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.

He wanted to become an equine veterinarian after a year working at an equine veterinary clinic. However, Ostrum discovered that dairy cow care fell more in line with his dreams, and after getting his veterinary degree at Cornell, he’s been doing that ever since — in upstate New York where he is also a husband and father of two children.

Ostrum described how agriculture and veterinary medicine have changed over recent years, with changing numbers and sizes of farms, the rising power of animal welfare groups and an increased desire from consumers to know where their food comes from. People want to know whether animals are treated humanely and whether farms are negatively affecting the environment, he said.

All of these changes and others require increased transparency, education and community outreach efforts by everyone working in agriculture, Ostrum said. In candidates for veterinary associates, he said that he looks for “the intangible skills at the heart of who people are” — their character and their ability to connect with clients and patients.

Ostrum also mentioned the importance of mental health awareness among veterinarians and other health professionals. “We can’t help others if we can’t help and support ourselves,” he said.

 

Ostrum was invited to speak at Bond LSC in celebration of World One Health Day — an effort to spur collaboration between experts in human, animal and environmental health. Attendees at the lecture could purchase chocolate bars for three dollars, and five bars out of 200 available contained golden tickets that entitled winners to prize baskets. Proceeds went to MU’s Veterinary Health Center’s Barkley House project — a guest house for families of pets receiving treatment.

Close encounters of the plant protein kind

Bond LSC researchers David Mendoza (left) and Scott Peck (right) are collaborating to develop a new method for studying plant signaling pathways as they happen inside the cell. | photo by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC

Bond LSC researchers David Mendoza (left) and Scott Peck (right) are collaborating to develop a new method for studying protein signaling pathways inside plant cells. | photo by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC

By Jennifer Lu | Bond LSC

Sometimes, timing is everything.

That was the case in what led to a new collaboration between the Mendoza and Peck laboratories. The two researchers were recently awarded $48,250 in seed money from the Bond Life Sciences Center to adapt a new technology to the study of signaling pathways in plant cells.

David Mendoza, a Bond LSC researcher and assistant professor of plant sciences who is interested in nutrient uptake in plants, got the idea for the project when he attended the Trace Elements in Biology and Medicine conference in June. There, he kept hearing about an enzyme called BioID used to identify protein interactions in mammalian cells.

“In plants, we have a hard time figuring out how proteins interact with each another to transfer information within the cell,” Mendoza said. BioID could be the key.

BioID works like a spy slipping a small tracker into the coat pocket of every person it encounters, but instead of a tracker, BioID transfers a unique molecular tag onto every protein that comes near. It’s a speedy process, no matter how brief the interaction between BioID and the incoming protein. But once the proteins are tagged, they can be rounded up and identified later, even if they’ve moved elsewhere in the cell.

Scientists can study which proteins interact with their protein of interest by linking BioID to their protein. This lets them track the signals being communicated to and through their protein without disrupting what’s happening inside the cell.

Although BioID has exclusively been used in animal systems, Mendoza talked to the scientist behind BioID to see if it could be used in plants.

Incidentally, BioID has been publicly available for several years but the enzyme was impracticable for plant experiments. It needed a lot of raw material on hand before it could start tagging proteins, much more material than what is normally found within plant cells.

However, research on a more suitable candidate called BioID2 was published just months before the conference. Unlike its predecessor, BioID2 required very little starting material to function in plants.

“Like a lot of things,” Mendoza said, “timing was key.”

When he approached Scott Peck, a colleague at the Bond LSC and professor of biochemistry specializing in plant proteomics, with the news, Peck saw immediate applications for BioID2.

With currently available methods, plant scientists have to look at protein interactions in artificial environments, such as in a test tube or in yeast systems. A real-time protein-tagging method would allow plant scientists to observe signaling pathways in their native environment–the cell–under a variety of conditions.

“It allows the contextual information within the plant to still be present,” Peck said.

For example, with BioID2 the Peck lab, which studies plant resistance to bacteria, could watch how incoming stimuli such as plant pathogens or stress from drought affect overall protein-to-protein interactions within plants, compare these protein interactions across different cell types, or even discover previously unknown protein interactions, he said.

“You know you have a good idea when the other person gets excited right away,” Mendoza said.

Peck also had a suitable model handy in which they could test BioID2 at work, but the two researchers first had to make sure plant cells could produce functional BioID2. Mission accomplished, the next step is to make plants produce BioID2 that is linked to their protein of interest.

“The nice part of this seed grant is it lets us get a jump on some new technology to develop here,” Peck said.

Using BioID2 in plants is an interesting and novel idea, Mendoza said. “For me, that’s enough to try.”

 

This seed funding is one of seven awarded this year at the Bond Life Sciences Center. These awards, which range from $40,000 to $100,000 in funding, foster inter-laboratory collaboration and make possible the development of pilot projects.