Gardening was a Constant
Growing up in an army family, Brad Evans moved around.
“We lived in northwest Louisiana, San Antonio Texas, northeastern Alabama, Oahu, Hawaii, but I always kept a little garden. I learned it from my grandfather. They had a big garden in Coushatta, Louisiana. We grew watermelons, strawberries, tomatoes, okra, peppers, among other things.”
Even as a young boy, he was fascinated by biology. “Cells, genes. All these things going on in a world that is much smaller than we can see.” Today, Brad is a PhD biochemist, principal investigator, and director of the Proteomics and Mass Spectrometry Facility (PMSF) at the Danforth Center.
The PMSF is a bio-analytical lab, measuring metabolites, proteins, the building blocks of the cells. Proteomics is the study of proteins. Mass spectrometry is an analytical tool for measuring the mass-to-charge ratio for molecules in a sample—a way to identify compounds. Plants produce a vast array of specialized metabolites, or natural products that communicate with other organisms, defend against pathogens and herbivores, attract pollinators, and deter pests. These could be developed into chemicals and medicines useful to humans. For many experiments biologists perform, it’s hard to know if they have affected the change they are trying to achieve. PMSF can provide the analysis to validate the work of Danforth Center scientists.
“If you are interested in improving nutrition or commercial qualities of crops (oil, protein, natural product, medicine, etc.), you have to have some way to measure if you’ve been successful or not. If you’re interested in knowing how growth correlated to environment, you need molecular characterization. These are all questions the PMSF can answer.”
The field of mass spectrometry, Brad has witnessed the proliferation and lowering in price of high-resolution mass instruments since he first started, thanks largely to the innovation of the Orbitrap, a type of Fourier transform mass spectrometer (FTMS). “When I was first in graduate school, there was only one type of FTMS instrument available and those were cost-prohibitive for most labs. There was a dependence on expensive consumables—liquid helium—and a very expensive super-conducting magnet made of rare earth minerals. But the new technology, Orbitrap, relies on an electrostatic rather than magnetic field. All you need is power. It’s been revolutionary.”
Research to Speed the Science
The Evans Lab is continually working on development of methods to expand the depth of information the can be gleaned using mass spectrometry. Together with 30 other labs, they are working to develop tools and technology for automated data analysis for metabolites. Staying at the cutting-edge of this field speeds the research of Danforth Center scientists, so that we can feed the world while preserving our planet.