Wabash Blogs Summers in Science

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Trayton White: Plant Biolchemistry in Ithaca

Trayton White — During the fall semester of 2005, I received an offer from Dr. Ann Taylor to join her at Cornell University for the summer.

Ithaca, the home of Cornell, is located in a beautiful part of central New York with many gorges and waterfalls surrounding it. This means the area is also covered in hills, which is a huge change for someone born and raised in Indiana — especially when running.

Fortunately, the weather is just like back home, if you don't like it just wait ten minutes and it will change. My days out of the lab are filled with softball, exercise, and hikes, which allows for a relaxing summer break in a “gorges” part of New York.

My project for the summer is conducting a screen of 250 tomato genes known to code for protein kinases. The ultimate goal is to pinpoint which kinases are involved in the plant’s pathogen defense by deactivating the gene using a procedure called virus induced gene silencing.

The silencing of a gene is the result of the plant’s own defense system that attempts to stop viral infections from spreading. Utilizing its own defense system, this procedure causes the plant to stop developing the selected protein kinase. The plant is then grown for five weeks after which an assay is conducted. The assay consists of injecting the plant with bacteria known to cause the plant cells to die in the infected area. The cell death is due to the plant’s own defense to prevent further spreading of the bacteria to other live tissue.

When cell death does not occur, it is a good indication the particular gene silenced coded for a kinase involved in the plant’s defensive system. These particular plants are noted and a graduate student will conduct various DNA analyses on the leaf tissue samples I collect.

The environment outside is a great addition to the research experience I have acquired. Despite my lack of coursework in biochemistry or genetics, I have been using both of those fields in this new area of research. Though the summer started off shaky, it steadily got better as I learned more of the vocabulary and read more papers. My experience at Wabash helped prepare me for this.

I am particularly thankful to my science professors for the integration of journal papers into the curriculum. This allowed me to jump right into this branch of science because of my experience in the basics. While I doubt I will pursue a career in plant biochemistry, it was good for me to get my feet wet and see what it is about.