Christopher Garner #IAmScience

#IAmScience

Christopher Garner, Ph.D, moments before his sucessful dissertation defense. | Photo by Mary Jane Rogers, Bond LSC

By Mary Jane Rogers | Bond LSC

“#IAmScience because I believe that the collective pursuit of scientific knowledge is what moves us forward as a species.”

In the time leading up to Christopher Garner’s dissertation defense, you never would have known if he was nervous. He was confident and composed, and the conference room at Bond LSC was completely filled with his professors, friends and well-wishers. Dr. Walter Gassmann gave a complimentary introduction to the dissertation, saying, “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a student so prepared.” Needless to say, Garner passed with flying colors.

Garner completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. After graduating, he went to work on a small R & D team at a St. Louis company. That was his first experience with research and his mentor was influential in persuading Garner to go to graduate school. During graduate school at MU, Garner worked in Gassmann’s lab at Bond LSC, researching the inner workings of the plant immune system. His favorite part of working in the lab was constantly conducting new experiments.

“It’s really satisfying to make a prediction and then see it come true,” said Garner. “It can be equally exciting to see things are radically different than what you predicted.”

His dissertation – “Should I slay or should I grow? Transcriptional repression in the plant innate immune system” – focused on the tradeoffs between growth and defense that plants face when mounting an immune response. While the immune response is essential for the survival of plants in the face of pathogen infection, expression of defense-related genes can interfere with growth and development and must therefore be kept under tight control. His research identified a protein involved in preventing an overshoot of the immune system after it has been activated, thereby contributing new information to the field.

“If there is some way in which I can contribute to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, be it through research or teaching others about science, then I feel like I have done something worthwhile,” said Garner.

Congratulations on a successful defense, Chris!

Walter Gassmann #IAmScience

Walter Gassmann

Walter Gassmann, the new Interim Director of Bond LSC. | Photo by Roger Meissen, Bond LSC

By Mary Jane Rogers | Bond LSC

“#IAmScience because science is the best way to solve problems and help people. And the laws of nature write fascinating stories.”

Walter Gassmann, the new Interim Director of Bond LSC, has been an important part of the MU science community for more than a decade. He’s a member of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group, a researcher in Bond LSC and a professor in the Division of Plant Sciences within the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

His research deals with how plants fight diseases and he specifically investigates the inner workings of plants’ immune systems, which are highly specialized in detecting the presence of foreign and potentially harmful organisms. Apart from figuring out how this detection works, Gassmann is interested in finding mechanisms that plants use to keep their immune system in check. The plant immune response is very potent in stopping pathogen spread, but if left unchecked it has the tendency to harm the surrounding plant tissue as well.

Fundamental plant pathology research, what Gassmann’s work deals with, has contributed to many agricultural gains, and will continue to provide avenues for improved crop yields. It has also led to many new insights for biology in general. For example, the concept of a virus was first developed in the late 1800s with work on tobacco mosaic virus. The tit-for-tat between plants and their pathogens has shaped plant immune systems and pathogen countermeasures for eons, and also affords a fascinating glimpse into the processes that shape the evolution of complex organisms.

In recognition of his outstanding contributions to plant pathology, Gassmann was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2016.

We look forward to your leadership, Dr. Gassmann!

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.

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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.”