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The Science in Our Food
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I first came to Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in May of 2015 a senior from the University of Missouri participating in the Intern Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) summer Internship program. I was assigned to spend the summer with the Doug Allen Laboratory researching soybean metabolism using an advanced method called isotopic labeling. As I met the members of the Allen Laboratory and was briefed on the details of my project, I was a mix of nerves and excitement. Up until this point, I had fairly little experience in even the most basic laboratory techniques and etiquettes. However, thanks to the fantastic mentorship I received from Doug Allen and the members of his laboratory, by the end of the summer I was confident in the new skills I had learned, and I completed a challenging and meaningful science project that gave insight into the metabolism and carbon usage of developing soybeans. At the end of the program, I returned to Mizzou to complete my undergraduate studies having developed unique skills and making new friends and colleagues at the Danforth Center.
Fast forward to a little over a year ago, I was a recent college graduate from the University of Missouri, and I was completely unsure about what I wanted to do next in my life and in my career. However, I did know one thing: whatever I pursued, I wanted it to be meaningful. I desired a career that would challenge me daily, allow me to learn new skills and have a positive impact.
The Ru Zhang Laboratory at the Danforth Center had a position available for a technician that met my criteria. When I returned to the Center to start my professional work with the Zhang Laboratory, the laboratory was brand new. The laboratory consisted of nothing more than empty space and bare shelves. I had the unique and challenging experience of helping Ru build her laboratory and launch the first research project.
“Will is bright and passionate. As the first member in my lab, he has never been afraid to learn new things and is always excited to work on challenging projects. He not only helped me set up the lab but also helped initiate the first project in the lab which is to study how algal cells respond to high temperatures,” said Ru Zhang, Ph.D., Assistant Member, Danforth Center.
Setting up a laboratory involved tasks that ranged from procuring new lab equipment, consumables and chemicals to optimizing protocols and ensuring the laboratory complied with safety regulations. I frequently had to handle managerial duties and research goals simultaneously, which was the aspect that was most difficult for me to get used to. Throughout the first year, the Zhang lab has gained rapid momentum in our goal to understand heat sensing mechanisms and networks in photosynthetic systems, which is a particularly important question given the threat of climate change.
As climate change increases global temperatures, photosynthetic organisms are exposed to more frequent high temperature conditions which impair plant growth and reduce crop yield. The 2012 U.S. heat wave caused an estimated $31 billion in agricultural losses (source). With the global population estimated to reach 9 billion by the year 2050 (source), society will be required to increase available food by at least 50%, and achieve a major shift toward clean, renewable sources of energy.
Addressing this challenge requires the development of more thermotolerant crops that yield more per acre with a smaller environmental footprint. This necessitates a robust understanding of the mechanisms through which photosynthetic systems sense and respond to high temperatures. Although heat responses in land plants have been studied for years, it is still not adequately understood how photosynthetic systems sense and respond to heat stress.
A genome-saturating, indexed, mutant library of Chlamydomonas has been generated, facilitating both reverse and forward genetic screens under various conditions
.Furthermore, a high-throughput and quantitative barcoding approach has been developed in Chlamydomonas, enabling tracking growth rates of individual mutants in pooled cultures and screening for mutants with interesting phenotypes at genome-wide scale. We used the algal mutant library to screen for mutants that cannot grow well under high temperatures and identified genes that are disrupted in these mutants which may be responsible for the heat-sensitive phenotypes. From the screens, we generated a list of genes that have potential functions in algal growth under high temperatures and they may provide putative targets to engineer thermotolerant algal strains and crop plants for biofuel and food production.
The pooled mutant screens are conducted in machines called photobioreactors (PBRs) (Figure 3). I think of them as the algal equivalent of plant growth chambers. PBRs can precisely control algal growth conditions such as light profiles, cell density, aeration, pH, and temperature. Since the screens are conducted in liquid culture in the PBRs, the experimental parameters can be applied highly homogeneously through the whole algal culture. I spend much of my time working with and optimizing the PBRs. We have several photobioreactors at the Danforth Center which we are planning to utilize to investigate the growth phenotypes of individual mutants and to soon conduct more pooled mutant screens under different screen conditions
It’s been a surreal journey transitioning from an REU intern with the Allen Laboratory to a founding member of the Zhang Laboratory over the last few years. Every aspect of the journey has been rewarding and impactful on my development as a researcher and as an individual. I am looking forward to the continued progress of the research project and the promise it holds to improve the human condition through plant science.
| Zhang labREUPlant sciencePhotobioreactorsintern