Plantasia

Thursday (07.26.2018)

Today, we’re highlighting the work of Dr. Jiming Jiang, joint-appointed member of the Departments of Plant Biology and Horticulture. Coming to MSU from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the last year, Dr. Jiang’s research focuses on expression and regulation of plant genes that are induced by environmental stresses. Check out his website at http://jianglab.plantbiology.msu.edu/ to learn more about the current findings of his lab. #Plantasia

Potato Varieties
Differing potato variations.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I joined the Departments of Plant Biology and Horticulture in August of 2017, coming to Michigan State University from the University of Wisconsin—Madison. I received my B.S. and M.S. in Agronomy and Genetics in China, then went on to Kansas State University where I earned my Ph.D. in Genetics. As a trained geneticist, my shared backgrounds in both agriculture and genetics have made me more capable to better understand plant breeding and environmental stressors.

Could you provide us with some insight into your research regarding the genetics, genomics, and epigenetics of potato and other crop species?

At UW-Madison, I led a breeding program within the Department of Horticulture. My major responsibility was to develop new varieties of potato. Variation in crop varieties is important, especially for market and consumer purposes, as one person might like red skin potatoes while another prefers “gold” potato with yellow fresh. Each variety has its own purpose, and breeders have to develop new varieties that are more resistant to various diseases and more tolerant to environmental stresses (climate change, water scarcity etc.). As a breeder, understanding the genetics of various potato traits allows us to more efficiently create unique strains of potatoes that can be resilient to all the things I mentioned above.

We also take a biotechnology approach to develop new types of potatoes. Using this new avenue of science, developing a new variety takes a lot less time—about 2-3 years—than using the traditional approach, where breeding new types of potatoes could’ve taken up to 20 years. Biotechnology allows us to manipulate the expression of specifically targeted genes in order to create new and viable varieties.

What is an important facet of your research that affects (or could affect) our everyday lives?

One way that our research affects everyday lives is trying to create new varieties of potatoes that have better processing qualities, which make good French fries or potato chips without color defects, and don’t succumb to extreme stresses in their environment.

Where do you see your research taking your lab—and yourself—in the next 5 years?

As noted before, we are becoming increasingly more interested in how plants deal with stress, and more specifically, abiotic stress. We’d like to be able to begin to develop crops that are more resilient to outside factors (temperature, cold storage etc.). In this, we have to become better at understanding how plants deal with stress. My goal is to keep working on potato processing issues, and plant stress responses.

What contributions do you hope the research conducted in your lab make to the field of Plant Biology?

I hope that our research in plant gene expression will lead us to better understanding about how plants react to environmental changes, which will be the key for plant breeders to develop new varieties of various crops in the future.


Wednesday (07.25.2018)

Today, we’re highlighting Dr. Marjorie Weber, a faculty member in the Department of Plant Biology. Dr. Weber’s research focuses on the interdependence and co-evolutionary pathways of plants and animals. Check out her lab at http://www.theweberlab.com/ . It’s truly fascinating research! #Plantasia

Dr. Marjorie Weber, Asst. Professor of Plant Biology
Dr. Marjorie Weber, Asst. Professor of Plant Biology

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in Michigan (a Michigander!). Growing up, I never thought of myself as particularly good at science. However, during college, I took a wonderful biology class and became fascinated by the study of evolution. I was enthralled by the knowledge that all of the species on our planet are connected to one another through a shared evolutionary history. I was captivated by the complex inter-connectedness of life on Earth.  After that, I joined an evolutionary biology research lab studying brown recluse spiders. The scientist who ran the lab encouraged me to pursue my interests after college, so I went on to work several jobs studying rain forest plants and plant-insect interactions). I loved it, and the rest is history! Now, I am faculty at MSU in the Plant Biology department, where I’m lucky enough to have a job where I study those same concepts that first captivated me so many years ago, and continue to captivate me today.

Could you provide us with some insight into your research regarding the evolutionary changes in plant traits and interspecies interactions among plants and animals?

Plants and animals are both amazingly diverse. This diversity is due, in part, to the myriad ways that plants and animals have interacted with one another over their long evolutionary history. My research explores how ecological interactions - whether they be cooperative, antagonistic, or manipulative - have shaped the evolutionary trajectories of both plants and animals through time.

What is an important facet of your research that affects (or could affect) our everyday lives?

Broadly speaking, understanding how evolution works teaches us about the processes that shaped life on our planet; it helps us understand our own history. More specifically, research on the evolution of plant-animal interactions can help us understand how different traits that plants and animals have today have functioned in various contexts throughout their evolutionary history. This knowledge can in turn be applied to understand how these same traits might function in different contexts today. For example, our research on the evolutionary gain and loss of various plant defenses can inform when and where defenses may or may not be effective if used in sustainable agricultural. In another example, our research on the evolution of flower color and floral perfumes of closely related plants can help us understand when plants with similar flowers can live together in new habitats, and when they cannot. Knowledge of the past can help us understand how species operate today, and in the rapidly changing world in the future.

Where do you see your research taking your lab—and yourself—in the next 5 years?

Over the next five years, we will continue to dig into some big mysteries in evolutionary biology! Why do some branches of the tree of life have so many species, while others have so few? What role do species interactions play in shaping these patterns? What are the evolutionary benefits or costs of cooperation between species? What about competition? How do we quantify the impact of species interactions on the evolution of life on earth?

What contributions do you hope the research conducted in your lab make to the field of Plant Biology?

Historically, ecology (how species interact with one another) has largely been studied separately from evolution (how species change through time). It is my hope that research in my lab will contribute to the continued unification of these two perspectives. Species on our planet are highly inter-connected, both through a shared evolutionary history and through a complex network of ecological interactions. In trying to understand why the world today is the way it is, it is our challenge to embrace this complexity rather than shy away from it! 


Tuesday (07.24.2018)

Today, we’re highlighting the work of Dr. Alan Prather from the Department of Plant Biology. Dr. Prather’s research primarily centers around the area of plant biodiversity, which fits perfectly with his role as Director of the Herbarium—a collection of preserved plants on campus that dates back to the early 1840s. Please visit http://www.herbarium.msu.edu/ to learn more about the work he does. #Plantasia

Dr. Prather
Dr. Alan Prather showcasing a specimen from the MSU Herbarium.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am Director of the Michigan State University Herbarium, which is a collection of preserved plants and fungi from all over the world that is used for research on plant diversity. At the Herbarium, we provide specimens and data to researchers and help anyone from Michigan with plant identifications. I am originally from Oklahoma and got my B.S. from the University of Tulsa before I went to the University of Texas for my PhD. I’ve been at MSU for 20 great years!

Could you provide us with some insight into your research regarding plant biodiversity?

Our research focuses on plant systematics—meaning that we study plant biodiversity. We want to learn about all types of variation in nature—genetic and morphological/phenotypic variation in particular. Our research focuses on questions like:  How is variation distributed within and among species, across geographic space, and how has it changed over time? How are plants related to one another and what can the tree of life tell us about evolution? What defines boundaries between species? As part of this work I describe new species, add information to the tree of life, and collect plants throughout North America, Central America, and the Andean parts of South America.

What is an important facet of your research that affects (or could affect) our everyday lives?

One aspect of my research that affects Michiganders and others across the U.S. is documenting what plants grow where, and how that changes across time. When my lab members collect plants, we add those to the MSU Herbarium. The collection houses over 540,000 plant specimens and can tell us about what plants grow in all parts of Michigan and the U.S. By comparing the current to historical distributions we can learn how that changes over time. So our collections contribute to things like monitoring threatened and endangered plant populations, tracking the spread of invasive plant species, and the decline of native species that are being killed, like our ash trees, or are being out-competed by invasive plants like many of our native orchids. Scientists from all over the world use our specimens to study potential new species, among other things. For instance, our Assistant Curator, Alan Fryday, has described about 50 new species of lichens using our collections in the last 20 years with collaborators from all around the globe. This type of research is what lays the foundation for floras and field guides of plants and enables all kinds of land management practices that are aimed at conservation and invasive species control.

Where do you see your research taking your lab—and yourself—in the next 5 years?

In recent years the research in my lab has turned to understanding how chromosome number can affect plant diversity. Some plants can have more than the typical two sets of chromosome numbers—from three sets to ten or more—and this is called polyploidy. The extra DNA and extra copies of genes can allow them to evolve in ways that typical plants don’t. And plants with different chromosome numbers can almost never mate successfully with one another—so that leads to questions about how they can change and whether plants with different chromosome numbers are the same species. Our data on some Phlox species from the Southwest suggest that at least in Phlox, doubling or tripling the number of chromosomes can lead to new species that have new phenotypic traits and different ecological tolerances. Because these changes are not obvious, but require very careful study, we now know that we have been underestimating plant biodiversity. Knowing how polyploidy interacts with the abiotic and biotic environment and how these plants change over time can help us better understand the biodiversity all around us.

What contributions do you hope the research you conduct will make to the field of Plant Biology?

Overall, my work focuses on characterizing plant diversity in many ways. What we do, and what we enable others to do by making our collections publicly available, has many different threads, but one really important one is knowing what species exist on planet Earth. Really understanding the diversity within species, can help us understand the nature of species more generally. And better understanding that enables us to get closer to fully understanding life on our planet. Linnaeus started documenting plant diversity in 1753, but we still have a lot to learn 250 years later!


Monday (07.23.2018) 

Today, we’re highlighting the work of Dr. Frances Trail and her lab in the Department of Plant Biology. A member of faculty for many years, Dr. Trail has devoted her work to the study of plant pathology, specifically fungi and fungal spore research. To learn more about her, go to: https://traillab.natsci.msu.edu/ #Plantasia

Dr. Frances Trail
Dr. Frances Trail and an introduction to fungi and fungal spore research.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I first became fascinated by fungi when I took a botany class in college and we learned that rust fungi, which are notorious pests of agricultural crops, make up to 5 different spore types to enable them to overwinter, disperse long distances, cross for recombining traits, and have repeated infection events over the course of a season.  They often have two hosts and special spore forms for each host and for moving from one host to another.  This initiated my interest in spores, fungal life cycles, and niche adaptation. I have been studying topics for over 30 years.

Could you provide us with some insight into your research on the evolution of fungal spores and spore dispersal?

An important question in biology is: How can we link changes in morphology that result in better adaptation to specific niches, to changes in the genetics of the organisms? To get at the mechanism of adaptation, we have to coordinate genetic analysis in multiple species, each with distinct genomes, and see what has changed between these species across evolution.  Working on fungi is an asset as the genomes are relatively small and there are many species that can be easily genetically manipulated for study in the lab. In our recent work, we have looked at gene expression across fungal fruiting body development in fungi that produce very small, flask shaped fruiting bodies called perithecia. We looked at genes that all of the species have in their genomes and we were interested in those that increased in expression in only one species among the 5 we examined.  Our hypothesis was that these genes that increased in expression have taken on a new role in that one species and that new role would most likely be reflected in the niche specific adaptation of that species. We used gene knockout technology in more than one species to determine how function changed and thus we have identified a powerful technique to reveal genes whose evolving role has led to developmental and phenotypic differences among species.

What is an important facet of your research that affects (or could affect) our everyday lives?

The fruiting bodies we are studying contain hundreds of microscopic spore cannons that launch spores into the air to distribute the fungi. A large portion of the genes we have identified are involved in spore launching, which apparently has different mechanisms depending on the needs of the species. We now have identified some genes involved in the launching mechanism of Fusarium graminearum, an important pathogen of wheat and barley in Michigan and around the world, causing “head scab” or “head blight” of wheat.  This fungus produces a toxin that can end up in our food, although it is not a health problem because of removal of the infected grain from US food and feed supplies, it is an important economic problem for growers.

Where do you see your research taking your lab—and yourself—in the next 5 years?

I am working on identifying novel ways of controlling spore firing in fungal pathogens, as a means to control disease.  I am also using this same approach to understand the evolution of plant infection in fungi, to better understand (and therefore control) pathogens which use a variety of ways of infecting plants.

What contributions do you hope the research conducted in your lab make to the field of Plant Biology?

Although much of my research is classified as “basic” research, I am very interested in seeing it used to solve real agricultural problems.  When I first started out, I would publish my findings, and would leave it to others to find ways to implement it.  More recently, I want to take my research to the next step and find ways to apply it to agriculture, particularly in Michigan and the Midwest.  I recently have obtained a patent for use of some novel plant compounds to reduce fungal toxins in crops.  I hope to work with companies to move this to use in the field.

Trail’s work is being supported by the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems at the National Science Foundation.