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IBC News and Updates
Photosynthesis is the story of life on Earth. Plants take sunlight and turn it into energy, thereby allowing for life as we know it. But scientists are still figuring out exactly how plants do this complex conversion.
“Photosynthesis can be dangerous,” said Helmut Kirchhoff, an associate professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. “At the point where light is collected, the energy is there. That energy has to be deactivated right away and transferred to different parts of the plant or it can damage the plant.”
Because sunlight fluctuates—with clouds or as the sun travels and shadows are cast–plants react to different light environments to stay safe and not make more energy than they can process, Kirchhoff said.
Now Kirchhoff and his colleagues have developed a way to monitor how plants adjust these photosynthetic functions.
“We developed a way to measure the components of this energy converting machinery,” he said. “To understand the process, you have to know the exact ratio of components. And now we can measure that.” (Full Article)
At the IBC Holiday Party in December 2018, the following graduate students received awards:
Kaan Koper in Dr. Tom Okita’s Lab received a 2018-2019 Helen and Loyal H. Davis Fellowship. This Research Fellowship consists of a stipend for calendar year 2019 and a cash award of $3,000 to spend for travel to a professional conference and/or research supplies.
Jesse Bengtsson in Dr. John Browse’s Lab received a 2018-2019 John & Maggie McDougall Scholarship. The Scholarship carries a cash award of $3,000 to spend for travel to a professional conference and/or research supplies.
Alex Alleman in Dr. John Peters’ Lab and Olivia Oung in Dr. Helmut Kirchhoff’s Lab received the Clarence “Bud” Ryan Institute of Biological Chemistry Travel Scholarship for the 2019-2020 academic year in the amount of $1000. The travel scholarships were made possible through a endowment gift by Pat Ryan (wife of the late Bud Ryan – pictured left with the award recipients).
Natasha Pence, a graduate student in John Peters’ lab, was selected as an awardee of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) Program. The SCGSR program awards outstanding U.S. graduate students the opportunity to pursue part of their graduate thesis research at a DOE laboratory in areas that address the scientific challenges that are central to the mission of the Office of Science.
Natasha’s dissertation work involves elucidating mechanisms of electron and proton transport to nitrogenase and hydrogenase. The proposal, co-authored by Dr. Wendy Shaw at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA and Professor Peters, involves using solution state NMR to establish design principles that define and control proton transport in [FeFe] hydrogenase.
Washington State University researchers have determined that Nez Perce Indians grew and smoked tobacco at least 1,200 years ago, long before the arrival of traders and settlers from the eastern United States. Their finding upends a long-held view that indigenous people in this area of the interior Pacific Northwest smoked only kinnikinnick or bearberry before traders brought tobacco starting around 1790.
Shannon Tushingham, a WSU assistant professor and director of its Museum of Anthropology, made the discovery after teaming up with David Gang, a professor in the Institute of Biological Chemistry, to analyze pipes and pipe fragments in the museum’s collection. (Full Article)
Dr. John A. Browse, Regents Professor, has been elected to the Washington State Academy of Sciences.
New members are accepted in recognition of their outstanding record of scientific achievement and willingness to work on behalf of the academy in bringing the best available science to bear on issues within the state of Washington.
Dr. Browse has made sustained and groundbreaking discoveries over the course of his 40 years as a plant lipid biochemist. He is internationally recognized for developing creative approaches to identify and characterize genes that control the biosynthesis of membrane and storage lipids.
Bates currently holds the position of Nina Bell Suggs Endowed Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at University of Southern Mississippi. His research group utilizes biochemical, genetic and molecular biology approaches to understand the metabolic pathways that allow different plants to produce oils with unique fatty acid compositions, and how we can engineer plants to produce designer oils to meet our nutritional or industrial needs of the future.
Ancient microbes that thrive in some of the world’s most extreme environments and modern-day humans have more in common than meets the eye — namely, they both respire and conserve energy using a similar molecular mechanism, one that has adapted to changing environmental conditions over billions of years.
The findings, published today in Cell by scientists at Van Andel Research Institute (VARI), University of Georgia (UGA) and Washington State University, detail the structure of MBH, a molecular complex involved in microbial respiration. The near-atomic resolution images are the first ever of MBH and show that its structure is remarkably similar to its counterpart in humans, Complex I.
“Nature is really good at finding molecules that work and then modifying them and using them over and over again. This is a prime example,” said Michael W.W. Adams, Ph.D., a UGA Distinguished Research and Georgia Power Professor who has been studying MBH for 20 years. “Knowing the structure of MBH provides us with new insights into how Complex I evolved and how it might work.” (Full Article)
Andrei Smertenko is leading the way on the science of long division; long division in trees, that is. The Washington State University molecular biologist studies the cellular architecture of plants in the hopes of helping grow renewable resources faster.
For example, wood is made up of cells, called xylem, and they do something no other cells do: they divide vertically.
But that takes a lot longer than normal cell division. Helping with these divisions are tiny cellular machines called phragmoplasts. Only land plants and their evolutionary ancestor algae make phragmoplasts.
“Super-long divisions in trees take a long time. Once we understand how the phragmoplast functions, we will be able to engineer trees with faster cell divisions and faster growth,” said Smertenko, a professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. “Fast-growing trees would produce timber and other renewable materials more quickly.”
Dr. Smertenko recently received National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER program funding for this research into phragmoplasts. The award is for nearly $1 million, spread over five years. (Full Article)
This is Dr. Peters’ second such honor in the last three months — late last fall he was named a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his contributions in chemistry.
The American Academy of Microbiology represents the American Society for Microbiology, the world’s oldest and largest life science organization. The mission of the Academy is to recognize scientists for outstanding contributions to microbiology and provide microbiological expertise in the service of science and the public. Dr. Peters’ work involves understanding energy use in living creatures at the microbial level. (Full Article)
Dr. Helmut Kirchhoff recently published a journal article on photosynthetic membranes in Nature Plants.
Dr. Kirchhoff—who wrote the article with a former IBC post-doctoral scholar, Sujith Puthiyaveetil, now assistant professor at Purdue, and Bart van Oort, faculty at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam—explores molecular forces that control the structure of energy converting photosynthetic membranes. This research helps to understand how complex structured membranes self-organize and react to environmental dynamics that allows plants to thrive in an ever-changing nature.
Saturated fat and particularly trans fat in the US diet are serious health risks, responsible for more than 50,000 excess deaths each year. Dr. John Browse, Regents’ Professor, has been awarded a three-year research grant from USDA-NIFA to alter metabolism in oilseed crops to reduce the levels of saturated and trans fats. Describing the goal of the project, Dr. Browse says, “Our discoveries in the model plant, Arabidopsis, have provided the knowledge needed to improve the composition of processed food oils. Now, we will be able to find out just how far we can go towards eliminating these undesirable saturated and trans fats”.
Election as an AAAS Fellow is a distinction bestowed upon AAAS members by their peers, in recognition of scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science and its applications. AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science (www.sciencemag.org).
Dr. Peters’ work examines energy conservation at the molecular level and how life generates energy from food by shearing off electrons. (Full Article)
Most children have a phase where they dream of the far reaches of the universe and working for NASA. Dr. Norman Lewis participated in a NASA outreach project that enabled seventh grade students at McCaffrey Middle School to participate in a project to begin to reveal how biology changes away from Earth’s gravity (Full Article).
Professor John Peters delivered an invited lecture in the opening plenary session at Plant Biology 2017, held in Honolulu, Hawaii, June 2017, at the Hawaii Convention Center. Professor Peters talk was entitled, “Innovative Solutions for Increasing the Impact of Biological Nitrogen Fixation on Crop Plants”. The annual plant biology meeting is hosted by the American Society for Plant Biologist (ASPB) and has been held for over eight decades and currently attracts more than 1,300 scientists from 40 countries.
The Kirchhoff lab published a paper recently entitled Sublocalization of cytochrome b6f complexes in photosynthetic membranes in Trends in Plant Sciences that presents a structural model that explains the variation in cytochrome b6f sublocalization data. They have been able to show that small changes in the distance between adjacent membranes in stacked grana regions either allow or restrict access of cytochrome b6f complexes to grana. If the width of the gap falls below a certain threshold, then the steric hindrance prevents cytochrome b6f access to grana. Evidence is presented that the width of stromal gap is variable, demonstrating that the postulated mechanism can regulate the lateral distribution of the cytochrome b6f complexes.
Professor Mark Lange assumes the presidency of the Phytochemical Society of North America (PSNA) in August 2017. PSNA is a nonprofit scientific organization whose membership is open to anyone with an interest in phytochemistry and the role of plant substances in related fields. The PSNA’s mission is to encourage and stimulate research on the chemistry and biochemistry of plant constituents, their effects upon plant and animal physiology and pathology, and their industrial importance and utilization.