Tuesday, July 10, 2012

An AH-HA moment:Characterizing mutant cells

Confidence building through science: A glimpse into SRAP research life

The Student Research Apprenticeship Program (SRAP) is a paid summer research program at the University of Wyoming for high school students in tenth through twelfth grade. It is sponsored by Wyoming EPSCoR and funded by the National Science Foundation. This is the third of eleven stories about the laboratories where this year’s SRAP students are working.

Christopher Hoyt works on an epidermal peel.
Christopher Hoyt has come across a rare moment in science, an AH-HA moment that young scientists  rarely experience.  It is the AH HA moment that keeps all scientists thrilled by their work and Christopher is well on his way to discovering the wonders of this moment.
Christopher is part of SRAP. He is working in a molecular biology lab this summer doing research to understand what is wrong with a mutant corn plant. The plant has a single gene mutation that causes the plant to be runty with wrinkled and curled leaves.
At first glance, this mutant plant looks generally sick. But Christopher, and his lab mentor, Dr. Carolyn Rasmussen, working in the lab of Dr. Anne Sylvester, have discovered that the mutant phenotype, as the appearance is called, may be due to just a single cell type that is growing out of control.
Much like cancer is due to mutant cells that grow rampant in humans and other animals, these particular plant cells seem to be growing way too big and in the wrong place in the leaf. “This could be causing all the defects we see,” says Dr. Rasmussen.
“This is an AH HA moment for the entire lab,” says Dr. Anne Sylvester, who is the director of Wyoming EPSCoR, in addition to being the faculty member leading the research. “We have been studying this gene mutation and the protein it encodes for a long time,” she adds, “But we could never understand what the essential defect is: how could a single mutation cause such profound impact?”
Now, once Christopher’s discovery is tested again and again, and the team is sure it is correct, they will have new information about the normal function of this cell type. And best of all, there will be a single gene pinpointed that regulates the process.
Through group discussion and evaluation of the data so far, the team is concluding that this cell type may regulate leaf curling, an important plant response to drought conditions.  The value of this information is far-reaching and could have agricultural impacts.
 “Christopher is right on the cutting edge, learning new information, nothing processed about it,” says Dr. Rasmussen. “The really nice thing is that figuring out this developmental defect has allowed Christopher to really expand on that and to think about new kinds of experiments that we weren’t thinking of before.”
Dr. Rasmussen, a post doctoral researcher with her own research program as well as a collaborator with Dr. Sylvester, is completely impressed with Christopher and their work together.
“If things turn out right, Christopher may have a publication,” Dr. Rasmussen says.
Christopher Hoyt works through a microscope to do epidermal peels
She looks at Christopher as he carefully peels the epidermis, or skin, of the corn leaf for his observations, then adds, “Learning to think critically about a problem helps with any endeavor, and this is one of the great strengths of scientific training. I think this is a really great project for Christopher.”
The project has also been great for Dr. Rasmussen. She has worked with numerous undergraduate students over the years and deeply values the mentoring process. “You only really truly know how to do something or what you are doing when you can explain it to somebody,” she says.
Sylvester points out that Christopher’s discovery came from detailed observation, which she says is the foundation of science. The observation leads to hypotheses that are tested by carefully designed experiments. Christopher has contributed to all these aspects of the scientific process.
“This is what I love about SRAP,” says Dr. Sylvester. “Students come to the lab, usually for the first time, and jump in with full energy and attention. They have fresh new insights and bring creative ideas that can change the way we think. And in turn, we hope these students will get hooked by science and continue on.  We need students like Christopher and other SRAP students in our future.”

 By Anne Sylvester and Kali S. McCrackin

Photo credits: Kali S. McCrackin

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