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MHS students join VaTech scientists

On October 8, a group of 28 Middlesex High School seniors taking Dual Enrollment Biology met with a Virginia Tech professor to begin work on a research project.

The professor, Dr. David Lally, is part of a program known as the Partnership for Research and Experimentation in Plants (PREP), which is designed to bring plant scientists together with high school students to study how plants are able to cope with environmental stresses such as pollution, drought, or high salinity.

Plants, unlike animals, are unable to move away from dangers in their environment, and have to make new proteins to cope with these environmental stresses. If plant scientists are able to figure out how the genes for these proteins are activated, or how the proteins they make do their jobs, scientists may be able to produce more drought or insect resistant plants.

However, it is difficult to study these stress genes. Researchers have to “knock-out” or remove the stress genes at random, then find a stress that the plant can’t cope with to see the effects of each gene. This is where the MHS students come into the picture. They are growing a laboratory rat of the plant world, Arabidopsis Thaliana, a close relative to the common mustard plant. However, the version of Arabidopsis being grown in MHS is missing a single gene—a gene whose function is not really known. So MHS students will design methods to stress their genetically-modified Arabidopsis plants and determine if the stress affects the mutated Arabidopsis plants differently than normal plants.

A second Virginia Tech plant scientist, Dr. Glenda Gillaspy, will be reading the results of their experiments in the online lab notebook the students will keep. Dr. Gillaspy is hoping that MHS students will find the stressful condition that helps her lab to unravel how this gene is working in normal plants.

MHS is one of less than 100 high schools in Virginia and several other states participating in the PREP program. Each high school is partnered with a participating plant scientist and becomes an active part of the research being done in the professor’s lab. This program helps researchers to identify potential ways to modify plants to help meet human needs.

This may help us to grow more and better food crops, as well as identify other crops that can be grown to produce bio-diesel or ethanol, using less fertilizer or pesticides in the process.

posted 10.23.2008

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