Curly vs. Straight: Study of Mutant Root Hairs May Unlock Genetic Secrets

Mary Preuss & students

Assistant Professor Mary Lai Preuss observes as biology seniors Elizabeth Silverberg and Helena Lam perform 'Arabidopsis thaliana' research.

Whether the single-cell root hairs of a small flowering plant grow curly or straight may seem like a minute, inconsequential detail of the natural world. For Assistant Professor of Biology Mary Lai Preuss, however, curly root hairs in Arabidopsis thaliana—a mutation—are the basis of a challenging research study.

Bause of its small genome, A. thaliana is frequently used as a model in research labs. Preuss said its single-cell root hairs are easy to see and can be manipulated without plant damage.

And why curly root hairs?

Mutant root hairs disrupt cell growth.

“I’ve chosen a mutant that specifically disrupts cell growth in a certain way,” Preuss explained. “By understanding which gene is responsible, we can extrapolate to understanding how that plays a role in cell growth in general.”

Preuss started her mutant root-hair study as a post-doctorate researcher at the Danforth Plant Science Center. The project’s important first step was engineering A. thaliana plants that could only grow curly root hairs. Then began the painstaking process of understanding the plant’s growth mechanisms and finding the gene that leads to defective root hairs.

Preuss brought the research project with her when she joined the Webster University faculty two years ago. Since then, she has received enthusiastic research help from biology students. She also has received financial assistance—a 2010-11 Webster University Faculty Research Grant and a 2010 TriLink ResearchReward.

The TriLink award provided funding for custom-ordered DNA primers, used to amplify copies of specific regions of DNA.

Preuss said that Stephanie Schroeder, associate professor and chair of the Department of the Biological Sciences, urged her to apply for the TriLink award. Schroeder had received a TriLink ResearchReward in 2007 and realized that Preuss’ study would also be a good fit for the award.

Preuss readily admits that training students to help with her research takes time. But as an educator, she said she would have it no other way. “I don’t want students to do a piece here, a piece there,” she said. “I want them to go through the whole process themselves.”

An invaluable learning experience for students

Helena Lam and Elizabeth Silverberg, both seniors in biology, said that working on the root-hair project over the summer was an invaluable learning experience.

Silverberg said that Preuss helped her grow as a student and mentored her through the trying early stages of learning research methodology. “She has given me confidence to pursue biology as a career,” Silverberg said.

“I loved being able to put many concepts we learned in class into applicable use,” Lam said. “Dr. Preuss’ project has helped strengthen my understanding of biological and genetic concepts, as well as efficient and meticulous skills in the laboratory. I learned how to successfully culture plants, amplify their DNA, analyze them, and then repeat the process to further narrow and hunt for specific gene mutations.

“Foremost, I believe I learned patience—lots of it.”





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