SRU researchers provide insight into plant genetics


student research

Nicole Dafoe (left), SRU assistant professor of biology, and Erica Burnworth, an undergraduate biology major from Greenville, are conducting research on how plant DNA respond to different stresses.

July 24, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Processed soybeans, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, are the world's largest source of animal protein feed and the second largest source of vegetable oil. They are one of nature's heartiest crops, notes Leon Higley, editor of the "Handbook of Soybean Insect Pests" who writes, "Unlike many crop species, soybean has a remarkable capacity to withstand much insect injury without significant yield loss."

Still, as one student-faculty research team at Slippery Rock University knows, the constant attack by insects such as beetles, does take a toll. Stress introduced by insects can affect plant DNA, triggering a DNA duplication process the researchers are studying to in hopes of identifying better soybean growing varieties.

nichole dafoe


Nichole Dafoe, SRU assistant professor of biology, said the research she is conducting with undergraduate biology majors Logan Pollman of Slippery Rock and Erica Burnworth of Greenville, addresses how plants respond to different stresses.

"Plants are sessile organisms that cannot run or hide; yet they are constantly subjected to stresses such as pathogen diseases and insect eating them," she said. "In some cases, when plants are fed upon by insects or if they are infected by pathogens, the cells in the plant stop dividing properly. The DNA or genetic material of the cell is duplicated, but the cell doesn't divide."

This process is called endoreduplication. The current hypothesis is plants do this in order to meet the increased metabolic demands imposed by the insect or pathogen.

"This process is also important for the general growth and development of some plants. It turns out that endoreduplication isn't limited to plants; it has been observed in a wide-range of organisms. It has even been observed in some forms of human cancer. However, surprisingly little is known about the biological significance of this process and how it is regulated at the cellular level."

Dafoe said the team's research focuses on studying genes in soybean that may be involved with the process in order to better understand how it is regulated, which could potentially lead to the identification of better growing plant varieties.

In some cases, when insects feeding on them damage a plant or they are infected by pathogens, this triggers the duplication of DNA in the cells.

"Hypothetically, this leads to higher metabolism in the cells. We are not sure why plants do this or if it is even advantageous to them. Based on my previous research, I found that the plants the insects fed on actually grew better because there was more protein and carbohydrates present, but the continued insect feeding led to stunted growth of the plant. We need to know more about this process and why it occurs. Only then can we can determine if this information can lead to growing plants more resistant to insects and pathogens."

"I am interested in this project because I get to work in the field of biology that really interests me, which is molecular biology," Pollman said. "I love trying to solve problems and working through the challenges that research offers me."

Pollman, who plans on going to veterinary school, said the project is giving him valuable hands-on lab experience

Pollman and Burnworth grow the soybeans in environmental growth chambers in Vincent Science Center. They are also involved in collecting and analyzing the soybean samples using molecular techniques such as PCR and gel electrophoresis.

"As an undergraduate I benefit by participating in this type of research because I'm applying things I've learned in the classes I've taken to something that is highly valuable," Burnworth said. "I'm also learning that things don't always work the way they should, if you have a problem you need to look for another solution. Sometimes the solution is something that doesn't seem like it would have that much of an impact but it does, such as adjusting the temperature during a part of the experiment.

Researching with her professor and a peer has allowed her to have more of an independent role than a typical classroom laboratory setting might allow.

"This experience is something that I feel is really going to help me in my future career as a physical therapist. It's a different feeling and pressure when you know what you are doing is something that really will have an impact and it's important that you perform the job correctly," she said.

Their research, "The Role of CCS52 Genes in the Onset of Endoreduplication in Soybean," is being funded by a Faculty Professional Development Council Grant.

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