How Plant Cells Protect Themselves--from Themselves
Colgate University biology professor Ken Belanger and an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Washington University in St. Louis, Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, and Saitama University are collaborating to better understand how plants protect themselves from naturally occurring but potentially damaging high-energy molecules. Their findings, said Belanger, could one day help farmers boost crop yields and shield their harvests from extreme environmental conditions, and may have even larger implications for aging and cancer research.
The group—which is currently composed of three biologists, one systems engineer, and one computer scientist, and will also soon include Colgate and Washington University undergraduate students—is one of just six in the nation to receive a five-year, $5 million Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research (FIBR) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Colgate’s portion of the funding will total about $60,000 each year.
The study will examine how plant cells defend against high-energy molecules that are produced as by-products of everyday metabolic processes, including photosynthesis and respiration. Called oxygen free radicals, these and other oxidizing molecules can harm DNA and proteins, impairing a cell’s ability to function. Oxidative damage is believed to be one of the primary causes of aging in humans and can potentially cause cells to become cancerous.
To prevent oxidative damage, cells have evolved and developed natural compounds and processes that protect themselves from the harmful effects of oxygen free radicals. The compounds are produced from genes that are “switched on” when damaging molecules become more abundant and “switched back off” when cellular conditions are less stressful, said Belanger. A better comprehension of how plant cells respond to such circumstances could help scientists develop environmentally-resistant crops, and may even provide insights into how human cells limit the oxidative damage that leads to aging.
The Washington University group will examine the regulation of the genes in moss cells and in a model vascular plant called Arabidopsis, while the Colgate team will look at such survival mechanisms in yeast cells.
Colgate’s share of the grant, Belanger said, will be used to finance work in the lab and send three undergraduate students each summer for the duration of the award to Washington University to do three weeks of coursework and seven weeks of hands-on research. The funding will cover the participants’ living expenses and travel costs, and provide them with a stipend as well.
Belanger added that the grant will subsidize just one biology major; the other two will be students of other science disciplines, such as computer science, chemistry, mathematics, or physics. The goal, he explained, is to show the students how real-world lab collaborations work, and to introduce them to systems biology, an emerging field that takes a broader approach to looking at biological changes and interactions. “My hope is that they will use methods from each of their disciplines to answer some key biological questions,” said Belanger. “Of course, I’m also hoping that they’ll bring back what they learn in St. Louis and help foster collaboration between the various sciences at Colgate.”
“From a practical standpoint, this program will expand our students’ knowledge of molecular biology and lab protocols,” said Lyle Roelofs, Colgate’s provost and dean of the faculty. “More broadly, it will provide our undergraduates with the opportunity to work shoulder-to-shoulder with an international, interdisciplinary research team that is pushing the frontiers of knowledge. It will be a great opportunity for them to explore some possible careers and collaborate with some of the world’s best scientists at the same time.”
According to the NSF, the FIBR program brings together scientists from many areas of biology and related fields to draw upon advances in genomics, ecology, enhanced information technology, and other areas to address significant under-studied or unanswered questions in biology. This year’s six FIBR projects involve dozens of investigators from 15 U.S. states and scientists supported by several other countries. Each undertaking integrates varied expertise from several universities and research institutes.
Members of the faculty at Colgate excel at engaging undergraduates in their research, tying classroom learning to applied experiences. Recent student-faculty collaborations have touched on a wide range of topics, including female artists of the Southwest, hydrogeology, corporate governance reform in Asia, sacred music, the warming of Antarctica, and the effects of gestures on cognition.