More than a decade of studying the development of the seeds of the mustard plant Arabidopsis thaliana paid off for a Franklin & Marshall College professor when he recently was awarded a three-year, $290,049 grant from a division of the U.S. National Institutes of Health to further his research.
Assistant Professor of Biology Pablo Jenik said his project, "Characterization of novel repressors of the embryonic maturation program in Arabidopsis," would examine the mechanisms the seeds use to accumulate nutrients that the seedling will utilize after germination, seed maturation. He begins the research this summer with the aid of F&M sophomores MinJun Feng and Jeremy Levine.
Improved knowledge of the maturation of seeds could eventually lead to improving the nutritional value of crops, Jenik said. The researchers will focus on what are known as the ASIL genes, which the professor said are good candidates for regulating the process of maturation in Arabidopsis.
Specifically, the grant from the National Institute of General Medical Science will allow Jenik and his research team to conduct experiments on normal seeds and seeds with genetic mutations, and then compare the development of the two seed groups.
"We think we're going to see differences at the seed stage and also in the seedling stage," Jenik said. "Understanding how maturation is regulated will increase our understanding of developmental switches and may, one day in the future, help manipulate the nutritional content of crop seeds."
The team will first analyze which genes and pathways the ASIL genes regulate by comparing their actions in the seed's embryo and endosperm -- the tissue that surrounds the embryo -- and in the seedling. These data will help them determine the genes' functions, Jenik said.
"This will help establish whether the same set of genes regulates maturation during seed development and after germination," said the professor, who began his research on the seeds and embryos of Arabidopsis 15 years ago. "The second aim is to understand the transcriptional regulation of the ASIL genes -- the means by which plants turn these genes on and off at the right times and tissues."
Jenik and his students will begin their research this summer at the University of California, Davis, where they will work with the lab of Plant Biology Professor John Harada to collect tissue samples of the seed's embryo and endosperm using laser capture micro-dissection, which uses a special type of microscope for this purpose.
"Their lab has plenty of experience in doing this research," Jenik said. "They have generously offered to help us."
The F&M team will then return to campus to continue with their experiments and studies.
"The nutritional properties of seeds are major contributors to human health, and seed maturation includes all the processes that lead to the accumulation of those properties," Jenik said. "The long-term goal of this project is to understand the genetic mechanisms that regulate seed maturation."
Levine said he looks forward to building research experience.
"It will be beneficial because I actually get to apply the material that I've learned over the past two years in a real-world scenario to better myself as a scientist," Levine said.