Creative Inquiry

Project Spotlights

Beyond the Laboratory

The agriculture industry relies on genetic research to breed better crops. Research in genetics can lead to a better understanding of how plants get nutrients and what factors affect growth; breeders can capitalize on this information to improve crops for farmers. Medicago truncatula is well-suited for study in the laboratory; it is a relatively small plant, with a small genome and short maturation time. Despite the plant's simplicity, researchers can use information gathered about its growth to better understand larger, more complex crops important in agriculture.

In genetics research laboratories such as Dr. Julia Frugoli's, the M. truncatula plant serves as a model to study legumes. Legume plants, including lentils and beans important in agriculture, are unique in that they establish a mutually beneficial relationship with Rhizobia bacteria. Although the plant and bacteria can grow independently, they can also interact and alter each other's development. Bacteria take up residence in root nodules of the legume, providing fixed nitrogen to the plant directly from the air. In turn, the legume feeds the bacteria with carbon from photosynthesis. Both nutrients are required for each organism to develop.

Frugoli and her Creative Inquiry team are investigating the signaling that occurs in this interaction. They are interested in how the plants establish and regulate the relationship with the bacteria: How many bacteria should the plant let in? How many nodules should the plant make? The group is approaching these questions by studying the genetics of mutant plants that do not regulate this pathway properly. By comparing normal plants to plants that over-produce nodules, students can find differences between them. In this way, they can determine which genes, proteins and hormones are involved in the signaling pathway that regulates nodule production.

Characterizing nodule development can lead to more than just a better understanding of legume plants. Frugoli's lab has found that the genes identified in M. truncatula are not specific to plants that produce nodules. Because they are conserved in other plants, Frugoli believes that the signaling pathway studied in her lab is used by all plants to respond to changes in nutrients. All plants monitor their levels of carbon and nitrogen and send out more roots to seek nutrients when a deficiency is detected. Understanding how plants do this would have important implications in agriculture; if scientists and farmers can control the pathway, they could adjust it to breed better crops.

In this Creative Inquiry project, undergraduate students majoring in biochemistry or genetics have the opportunity to conduct laboratory research. They learn lab techniques and writing skills, gaining experience in what scientific research is like at a graduate and professional level. But perhaps even more important, Frugoli believes, are the critical thinking skills that her students develop through performing experiments: "When [students] troubleshoot an experiment, it's very much like a logic puzzle." Students cannot simply look up the answers in a textbook; because they are working to acquire new knowledge, they must figure out the reasoning and logic behind experimental results.

A major challenge for the Creative Inquiry group is the slow pace of the project. Ten weeks may be a relatively short period of time for a plant to grow, but it is also the better part of one semester. Furthermore, in order to study the movement of a hormone inside the plant, Frugoli's students had to insert a specific hormone tracking gene into the plant; this process took a good two years to complete. The students in the Creative Inquiry project perform short-term experiments, but also observe the work of graduate students who manage the long process of growing and preparing the plants.

Through the project, students who intend to pursue a graduate degree learn what to expect while doing scientific research in the future. Moreover, Frugoli hopes that other students can also benefit from participating in the project: "Even if [students] never go into research, understanding how it works is important for scientist citizens." First-hand knowledge of the meticulous and slow process of scientific research contributes to understanding science issues in the news. In particular, understanding genetics research can go a long way in being informed about topics such as genetically modified crops. Knowledge of the science behind the issues - beyond the basics that the media mentions - can be the key to making good decisions.